Friday, 4 March 2011

Templed Out

Madurai – Chidambaram

For over two thousand years, the site of Madurai’s central temple has been hosting an annual festival in honour of the fertility Goddess Sri Meenakshi. Most details of the festival have not changed since the Greek ambassador Menasthenes visited Madurai during his travels on the Spice Route in the 3rd century BC. Hundreds of generations of South Indians have asked the Goddess to give them children, walking for days from their villages to witness the holy festival. To this day, the images of the Goddess and her husband, Lord Sundareshvara, are placed in a private bed chamber every night so that they can make love (even the Goddess’s nose ring is removed as to not interfer with the love making) – an act that apparently preserves and regenerates the universe. ||

Gopuram in Madurai   Top of Gopuram

We had missed this year’s festival by a week or so but were excited to visit the temple. Madurai’s chaotic city centre is dominated by the 12 Gopurams towering over the temple. Each Gopuram is up to 50m high and covered in man-sized images of Hindu deities and gurus. Looking from a distance, the Gopurams just look like colourful towers, but standing up close the amount of detail and variation in the figures is mindboggling. 

Multi-armed deity statue   Deity statue

Having left our shoes at a shoe counter, we entered the womb of the temple – a dark hall with many pillars and an intricately decorated ceiling. We had been looking forward to seeing the image of Meenakshi, but unfortunately non-Hindus were not allowed into the inner sanctum. We did, however, visit the temple elephant and the white temple buffalo. The elephant’s head was painted with white and orange colours, and her task was to take donations of coins from the visitors and then bless them by tapping her trunk on their heads. The novelty factor led to more donations being made, and we also couldn’t help but pass some coins to the elephant in exchange for a gentle tap on the head. The poor buffalo wasn’t quite as popular as he lacked party tricks, but there were many statues of buffaloes around the temple, which pilgrims covered in flowers, grass and chalk powder.

Temple elephant   Yogi with piggy

In the heart of the temple area, tacky souvenirs were sold by dozens of market stalls. The only place of peace and quiet were the steps of the empty temple tank – other than that, the temple was a hive of activity. Pilgrims, standing in front of the image of the deity, had to say their prayers within seconds before being pushed aside by the next person in line. While we find the Hindu religion fascinating, it can be overwhelming to the outsider with its profusion of different gods and goddesses and the sheer excitement and energy that goes with the never ending religious festivals, a stark contrast to the tranquil, meditative spaces of the mosques in the Middle East.

Tranquility can be hard to find at times in India, there are few parks or quiet areas in towns and when they do exist they are often crowded. Madurai is a testament to this; we had to lock ourselves away in our room just for some peace and quiet, and even then we could still hear the relentless hustle and bustle of city life outside our window. Just as the temple festival hasn’t changed for thousands of years, the city’s dirt roads also hadn’t been upgraded to the current level of traffic. When on our bicycles we move with the traffic flow, but walking is exhausting as there are no foot paths so you have to share the ever congested road with everyone and everthing from cars and motorbikes to cows and bullock carts.

After a couple of days we had enough and were on our way again. Not long after leaving the city we soon found ourselves coasting along on a quiet road flanked by a meandering river on one side and bright green rice fields on the other. The locals were beaming smiles and waving at us, we felt calm and relaxed again, we were off the beaten track and out of guide book range. The road was very quiet, a little hilly and with good tarmac. Surprisingly, there was also no headwind, so we flew along through the fields and shrubland, framed by gentle hills in the background. As there are so many towns and villages in India, there are many small roads, which are usually sealed and make it easy to avoid the main roads. Cycling India’s back roads is a real pleasure, certainly some of the best cycing we have done to date.

Rural scenery

Passing through a small village, we started chatting to an elderly man who was hitching a lift on the back of his son’s bicycle, sitting side saddle on the rear rack. He invited us for a cup of tea at a village chai stall. He had never seen foreigners in his village before, though we are sure the odd cycle tourer must have passed through unnoticed.

We didn’t come through any larger towns during the day so had to subsist on the snacks we could find in village shops. Having cycled 100km, we reached the small town we were intending to stay in. Asking the locals for a hotel resulted in a lot of head shaking and frowning, until they finally agreed to show us the town’s only establishment, consisting of only 4 small rooms. Our room was very dark, hot and damp. The power was only switched on between 6pm and 6am, so we couldn’t use the ceiling fan or lights at other times, and there were many open slits where mosquitoes came through. To top it off, we didn’t manage to find dinner – the only restaurant we found was only serving snacks.

After a hungry night, feeling sorry for ourselves, we got a reality check (just one of the many you get on a daily basis in India) when we stopped at a road side tea stall the following morning for tea and omelette. We got chatting to a local truck driver who told us he was dreaming of cycling up to Kashmir. However, he had had to abandon his cycle tour after a few days because his budget was only 250 Rupees per day (we spend 750 each…), which barely covered his food, so he had to sleep outside on the ground, fighting off mosquitoes… Surely he would have been more grateful than us for the hotel room we stayed in last night.

At noon we arrived in the city of Trichy. We had trouble finding a hotel – most were booked out by wedding parties as we had happened to arrive on one of the best days of the year to get married, and Trichy is a popular wedding destination. Eventually we came past a slightly crumbling colonial style hotel which had room. The hotel was a relic of British colonial times when families would come here for the weekend. It had a nice atmosphere and a lovely courtyard, but unfortunately the charm in our room had checked out some time ago.

We were sure 80 years ago in our very bed, on our very mattress, was sleeping a British Colonel and his wife as the mattress was so ridiculous soft coupled with a spring bed that when you lay down you slumped into such an exteme U shape your feet nearly touched your forehead. To make matters worse we had some kind of anti-fan in the room as it seemed to keep the warm air down and the cool air away. According to the hotel manager (with a hint of glee in his eyes) he told us it was “over 80 years old”, and “still going”! After suffering from extreme heat exhaustion we opted to move to a more modern room which had as much charm as a bowl of porridge but featured a non colonial and very effective fan.

Trichy is famous for its Rock Fort temple, which is perched on an 83m high rock in the centre of town. Climbing up the rock along with throngs of Indian pilgrims was fun, and the views from the top rewarding, but the temple itself was nothing to write home about. We also visited the larger Sri Rangan temple, which was interesting as we had to enter through several Gopurams and then several walls to get to the inner sanctum (which we were sadly not allowed to enter).

Drawing of a Kolam to attract the Gods   View from Rock Fort temple in Trichy

Leaving Trichy, we found a quiet lane between two rivers which are part of the huge Cauvery river delta. Turning onto a rural road, we were amazed to see actual modern farming machinery from crop harvesters to big John Deer tractors. Obviously they do exist in India but this was the first time we had seen such commercial machinery. In this area, most villagers live in quite basic huts made of mud, concrete or palm fronds, with thatched roofs. It was wonderfully cool and cloudy, and much to our surprise we even had some rain! It was over four months ago in northern Iran that we experienced our last rainfall. It was really lovely and refreshing to cycle with the cooling rain soaking us through.

At lunchtime, we pulled into a small town but couldn’t find a restaurant. When we asked a local man, he walked us to a seemingly hidden restaurant that we had actually cycled past without noticing. We tried to invite him for food or a tea, but he refused all our offers, sat down at a nearby table and watched over us. We felt a little uncomfortable at first with him sitting there watching us eat but  relaxed when we figured he just wanted to make sure we were okay. He made sure the waiters kept the food and drinks coming and even advised Freddie to push up her shirt sleeves so they wouldn’t get dirty!

In the afternoon, we suddenly felt as if we had entered the Middle Ages. We were slapped in the face by India’s reality when, within the space of an hour, we passed several people with pretty horrific deformations. First, we saw a sadhu hobbling through a village, with one leg swollen to elephantine proportions, his huge foot covered in boils and looking like a giant cauliflower. Then we came past a man with a huge cyst like an aubergine hanging off the back of his head. Shortly afterwards, we passed a lady with severe acid burns disfiguring her bold head and face. We had actually expected to see a lot more of this in India, but mercifully it has been very rare outside of Mumbai. We felt pangs of guilt knowing that our worldwide medical cover would wisk us away in a flash to some private foreign clinic whilst these people receive little or no medical help.

To top it all off, we then cycled past a naked man, sprawled out on a bridge in a half-coma (drugs? alcohol?) as we rolled into Kumbakonam, our destination for the day. We found a good hotel but with an annoying room boy. Since Madurai, more and more people expect tips from us – in the rest of India, room boys were often positively surprised when we tipped them for bringing our bags up, but here everyone expects tips: Room boys, security guards, restaurant staff, cleaning ladies…

The room boy half-heartedly helped us with our luggage, so we gave him a tip, doubling what we would normally give as he helped us with the bikes. Obviously he was still unhappy as he then demanded a 50% increase! As we understand it, the nature of a tip is that it’s voluntary and we decide how much we want to give. In the end we grudgingly agreed to his demands, but it was not enough. The following morning, he gave us back our deposit but kept some money behind, saying it was a “tax”. Seeing that we had already paid the taxes on the room, it was blatent tourist extortion. Guy who had already woken up on the wrong side of bed had a few choice words to say, to the astonishment of the hotel boy who quickly returned the “tax”.

We passed an uneventful day cycling on a slightly busier road to Chidambaram, which is known for its Shiva temple. The state of Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, and indeed every town we pass through seems to have a famous, must-see temple. We don’t have much stamina when it comes to temple sightseeing and were starting to feel a little templed out. However, we did decide to have a quick look at the temple in Chidambaram and were pleasantly surprised as it was not so crowded yet just as impressive as some of the other temples we had visited.

After over 2 months of cycling in India and 2300km covered, we now only had a couple more days cycling left. With some time to kill before our flight from Chennai to Bangkok we were planning to take a break once we hit the east coast and work on a few up and coming projects.

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