A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: LunaticLoose

The final post

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, Thanjavur and the journey home..

sunny 30 °C
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No visit to Tamil Nadu would be complete without exploring a bit more of Madurai, so we headed into the city and stopped off at the Palace. Although showing its centuries' old age, it was easy to see how it would have been and the scale of the building was impressive. However, when talking about scale and impressive buildings in Madurai, the most amazing structure I've seen in India has by far been the Meenakshi Amman Temple. With its 14 tower gateways (gopurams), the tallest of which is 170 feet high, it is an imposing structure and you could spend hours looking at all the colourfully painted statues adorning each tower.

It did however take a bit of a concerted effort to actually get into the temple. We went to the shoe stand as usual to leave our shoes there and Mark was told he wasn't allowed in wearing shorts and he must either buy or hire a dhoti (an item of men's clothing which consists of a long piece of material which is wrapped around the waist and worn like a skirt) - Mark dutifully donned this and we got in the queue. As is customary, ladies enter separately to men and I was waved to the front of the line. As I got to the security gate, the guard informed me that I wasn't allowed to take any electrical items inside, so I had to go back to the cloakroom and hand over everything except my phone which apparently doesn't count as an electrical item! Then it was back through security, by which time around 30 male pilgrims had arrived and joined the queue! Fortunately they were kind enough to let Mark go in front and soon we were inside.

From the point of entering the temple it is an assault on the senses, there was music, smells of pujas being offered and the most amazing and intricate detail of paintings and carvings at every turn. We spent the best part of two hours exploring every part of this wonderous building and I left feeling overwhelmed by its scale and beauty.

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Our next trip covering nearly 200km each way was to the historically and religiously important town of Thanjavur. The main reason for our visit was the 1005-year-old Brihadeshwara Temple. Dedicated to the God Shiva, the temple is another impressive structure with a covered walkway around the circumfrence of the site and the ancient temple in the centre. Here we saw another huge Nandi statue, almost as large as the one at Chamundi Hill in Mysore. Around the covered walkway the walls are adorned with ancient paintings; also housed here are hundreds of lingams of all different sizes. After we'd explored the temple, we went off to try to find the place where many of the statues of the gods are manufactured which is a few kilometres away from Thanjavur. Eventually we found a shop and manufacturing site and the owner was happy for us to come in and have a look. The main area for this kind of manufacture is called Swamimalai and, although we didn't see the whole process, the craftsmen make wax models of the statues they want to cast, these are then closely covered in mud and the wax is melted out to create a mould into which is poured the molten bronze - once it has cooled, the mud is chipped away. I found a video of the whole process on YouTube here.

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My final week in India included my birthday celebrations when we went to Wild Rock, a resort a short distance from home - from here we had beautiful views of the Kamarajar Dam and enjoyed some drinks and nibbles :). I was also treated to a delicious meal in Madurai and a cake - I was even serenaded with happy birthday!

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Before we knew it, it was time for us to pack our bags and start the long journey back to London. We left early in the morning so that we could stop at Pondicherry again briefly before heading for the last two nights in Mahabalipuram. This ancient historic town is known for its architectural importance and, during our brief stay, we visited the Shore Temple which, as the name suggests, was built right on the shore of the Bay of Bengal from granite blocks and dates back to the 8th Century AD. The detail of the carvings in this ancient temple are fantastic and we enjoyed exploring the site. After this we took a short walk to the site of the Five Rathas - Ratha means chariot and here there are five monuments each shamed like a chariot. Again, the carvings are beautiful and the colour of the stone almost makes it feel as if these structures have organically grown from the ground around it.

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On our way to Chennai to catch our flight the next day, we saw a pure white temple and decided that we'd stop to look. This Jain temple was still being constructed - the workmanship on the marble was breathtaking. With an inlaid stone floor, carved marble ceiling roses and one of the the biggest chandeliers I have ever seen, it really was something to behold and a beautiful last temple to visit.

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My trip to India really has been everything I was hoping for, I've been moved to have seen the places and projects and to have met the people I have on this adventure and it will remember it always.

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Posted by LunaticLoose 12:00 Archived in India Tagged madurai mahabalipuram shore_temple meenakshi_amman tanjavur brihadeshwara_temple five_rathas Comments (0)

Some humbling experiences

rain 26 °C
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On our penultimate Sunday, we had another visit to the Children's Village. As it was my last Sunday visit, and Mark's only visit, Mum had arranged a Christmas party for the Children. We played musical statues and Simon says and gave them a little bag of gifts including light-up rubber balls and toy mice, ladybirds and bees that Mum had knitted. The kids really enjoyed it and so did we! I had one more short visit to the Village before I left and gave the children some sports equipment which I hope they will use and enjoy in the years to come. I'll miss those little guys.

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During our time, we were also lucky enough to visit two other charities which are supported by the Joe Homan Charity, the fundraising body for Boys Town Society based in Peterborough. We had a fantastic guide in the shape of Gopi who himself is a Boys Town alumnus. First we went to Mother Mary Special School which is attended by around 40 children with special educational needs. Rachele, who is the secretary of the school, explained to us that many parents don't understand the needs of these children and so this school offers them the support that they require and some of the children live at the school as well. She also showed us the physiotherapy room which was clearly in need of additional equipment, although the dedication of Rachele and her staff was clear. After this Gopi took us to a residential home for children with HIV and other life threatening diseases like Hepatitus B. Many of these children have heart breaking stories of being found in train stations and drains. Gopi explained that abandoned children who have these kinds of diseases are automatically brought to this home and an additional building was being erected as some of the children are now becoming young adults. These experiences made me realise the levels of need here in India and the lack of understanding, but also the dedication and love of a few individuals which goes a long way.

We also stopped off at Tirumangulum where the founder of the Boys Town Society, Joe Homan, spends half of his time. As part of the 50-year celebrations of the charity in January 2015, a small "museum" was set up at Tirumangulum to showcase the decades of wonderful work which Joe started in 1965 as a man of 35. The photos of the first generation of boys that Joe was able to help were humbling. Many of those boys, now older men themselves of course, are still close to Joe. It's been insipirational to see the story of the Boys Towns in its entirety - from children as young as five at the Children's Village to boys of around 16 at Athoor Boys Town. I've learnt about the history of the charity and seen photos of boys of nine whose hands I've now shaken as men. I've been invited to the home of Gopi, a former Boys Town boy, now a man with young children of his own and qualifications in commerce, sociology, computing and acupuncture and giving his time to help better the lives of other children through the Joe Homan Charity. And of course I've met Joe himself, an old man of 85 and felt honoured to hug him and thank him for all he's done for the children and young people in the area.

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Posted by LunaticLoose 12:05 Archived in India Tagged boys_town_society joe_homan mother_mary_special_school Comments (0)

Thekkady

Wildlife, martial arts and spices

overcast 24 °C
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After six brilliant and jam-packed weeks, part two of my adventure here has begun this week as on Sunday we drove to Madurai airport to collect Mark! He was straight into the swing of the action as we were treated to some fire dancing and eating at Cardamom House!

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Our first trip together was to Thekkady which is a town of around 17,500 inhabitants located in the hills of the Western Ghats just over the border in Kerala. Our first outing was to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where we were greeted by a massive load of monkeys jumping around on buses and cars...I gave them a wide berth as I wanted to keep my face intact (maybe a bit melodramatic).

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There was more melodrama as we boarded the boat that would take us round the artificial lake which is formed by the Mullaperiyar Dam across the Periyar River (thanks Wikipedia). It was like a big game of musical chairs with no music as people were getting on and off the three boats that were moored at the jetty. Our tickets were checked by at least four guys and somehow people still managed to end up on the wrong boat with one being called back and people disembarking and reembarking. Finally we set off to see what the lake had to offer by the way of wildlife. Whilst the fauna was a little thin on the ground, we did see an impressive monitor lizard, egrets and cormorants on their nests, and the surrounding jungle backdrop was beautiful.

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In the afternoon we had a mooch around some really lovely boutique shops with very beautiful statues, materials and jewellery, mostly from Kashmir. After this we relaxed at the homestay with a few beers on the balcony before heading out again this time to see a Kalaripayattu martial arts display and Kathakali "dance drama". The martial arts was an impressive combination of acrobatics, weaponry and fire displays. The show culminated in one of the guys jumping through a flaming hoop that was barely big enough for him to fit through! Here's a video of one of the acrobatic sections.

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The Kathakali "dancing" was something I wasn't at all expecting with a very specific style of movement and dress. Traditionally the dancers are elaborately-dressed men, one of whom plays the part of a lady, and they perform various stories. The first half was a demonstration of the different emotions conveyed through a highly dramatised technique using extreme facial expressions, eye movements and delicate hand gestures. The music accompanying the dancing was quite basic with just drumming, small cymbals and some singing. It really drew on my emotions and I found myself mimicking the facial expressions of the dancers as I watched!

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Before heading home the following day, we visited a spice plantation where we learnt about lots of different spices, plants and their respective ayurvedic properties. The ways in which some of the plants grow was surprising including figs which were sprouting from the base of the trunk and cardamom pods growing from root-like vines out of the ground. The whole five acres are completely self sufficient and eco friendly with nothing being wasted, the dung from the cows and goats was used to produce methane which is used as cooking gas and the water is recycled across the site. We tasted the nectar from the stamen of one banana plant and chickened out of walking across the elevated wire walk-way to the tree houses!

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Overall the trip did Thekkady biscuit...! (Joke courtesy of Mark)

Posted by LunaticLoose 20:58 Archived in India Tagged periyar thekkady kathakali kalaripayattu Comments (0)

Rameswaram

Shiva temple, floating rocks and sandy beaches

sunny 30 °C

It was another long trip down to Rameswaram last week, which is one of the most sacred places in India. It is located on the Pamban Island with a peninsular which stretches out towards Sri Lanka. There has been a lot of rain recently and, on the way through Madurai, we saw people washing their clothes, cars and motorbikes in the river which, only a few weeks ago, was completely dried up.

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The main attraction for pilgrims, devotees and tourists alike is the Ramanathaswamy Temple which is dedicated to Shiva and dominates the centre of the town. We walked out in the evening down to the water's edge where there were quite a few people paddling in the sea and goats hanging out on the beach. We walked the perimeter of the temple from the outside which is 865 feet long and 657 wide and construction was still taking place.

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The following morning we took the opportunity to go into the temple to view the famous corridors, the total length of which is 3,850 feet and there are over 1,000 pillars each with individual and distinct carvings. At the centre of the temple is a lingum, this is a representation of Shiva - "According to the Ramayana, Rama, the seventh incarnation of god Vishnu, is believed to have prayed to Shiva here to absolve sin of killing a brahmana, committed during his war against the demon king Ravana in Sri Lanka. Rama wanted to have the largest lingam to worship Shiva. He directed Hanuman, the monkey lieutenant in his army, to bring the lingam from Himalayas. Since it took longer to bring the lingam, Sita, the wife of Rama, built a small lingam out of the sand available in the sea shore, which is believed to be the lingam in the sanctum." (Thanks again Wikipedia)

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Hanuman had a further part to play in the story at Rameswaram this time with Rama's (also known as Adam's) Bridge - this is a chain of limestones which stretches from the tip of Pamban Island, called Dhanushkodi to Sri Lanka's Mannar Island. In Hindu theology, Hanuman and his monkey army built the bridge from floating rocks so that Rama could rescue his wife Sita who was being held captive in Sri Lanka. There is a place where we went to see smaller examples of the floating rocks which are said to have been touched by Hanuman. There are various geological theories as to how the 'bridge' came into existence... There's a video on YouTube of an example of the floating rock.

It's only possible to drive about 10km out towards Dhanushkodi before the pathway becomes too sandy. Although you can get a jeep to take you further out, we just stopped at this halfway point to check out the beautiful coast, we had paddle in the surf and saw a few fisherman hauling in their catch. Crossing the road bridge back to the Indian mainland, I stopped to take a couple of snaps of the Pamban rail bridge, before we headed back home.

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On the way home we thought we'd stop for a quick snack, we pulled into a place and asked the parking attendant whether they had any snacks available "oh yes yes yes" we were told. As we went inside and checked again we were told yes again, however as we sat down there was a flurry of activity as it seemed that about three guys were putting together whole thalis for us. We stopped them mid track and explained again that we just wanted some vegetable puff pastry squares (vegetable puffs), a bit of conversation ensued and we were told "five minutes" as one of the waiters hopped on his motorbike to buy us some puffs from the shop down the road - they were very nice!

The long, scenic route home through various villages and really pictoresque countryside was eased by singing along to Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Posted by LunaticLoose 17:09 Archived in India Tagged rameswaram ramanathaswamy_temple floating_rock dhanushkodi Comments (0)

Mysore

...head? ...knees? ...feet?

overcast 26 °C

Last week saw me visiting the last of the five different states planned for my trip: Karnataka. To the north west of Tamil Nadu, the capital of Karnataka is Bangalore, we however visited a previous state capital, Mysore.

It was a long journey, taking over 8 hours in total over mountains with hairpin bends a plenty and gangs of monkeys hanging out on the road. As we got closer the the city, there were more and more roadworks, clearly the local authorities are trying to improve the city's infrastructure.

When we arrived we had a bit of a look around and wandered into a market. The stalls were starting to pack up, but we saw the piles of brightly coloured powders which are used for painting welcome messages on the ground outside many entrances. There were craft stalls selling small statues and beads, flower stalls with immensely long garlands to be cut and sold by length, fruit and vegetables, and kitchenware.

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Despite the dug up roads, Mysore is still quite lovely with some really impressive architecture, not least of which is Mysore Palace which we visited on the first morning. The palace was built between 1897 and 1912 when the original palace was completely destroyed in a fire. Inside was amazingly ornate and everything was on an absolutely huge scale. There was marble and ceramic tiles from Italy, statues from France and cast iron pillars from England. It made the Brighton Pavilion look like a cottage! The Last Maharaja died in 1976, with no heirs, but he adopted his nephew who is now 24 and still lives in part of the palace. I realised I've mentioned socialism in pretty much every post, so I'll let you imagine what my thoughts are on the Maharajas and their East Indian Company mates from Britain.

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There are 14 temples at the Palace, we visited the two that were open and the second one was really very beautiful with carved pillars and colourful, clearly very old, paintings on the walls. Each temple is very different, some very plain, some intricate and ornate.

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In the afternoon we headed up to Brindavan Gardens. These are also on a massive scale and immaculately manicured. The hotel at the top of the gardens was the perfect spot to view them and wait until darkness for the many lights to come on which illuminate everything beautifully.. It was also a welcome place for a Kingfisher or two :)

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Crossing the long bridge to the other side of the water with the many crowds, there was almost a festival atmosphere and some guys were even selling glow sticks. On getting to the other side, there is a large fountain with many various colours. The water sprays high up into the air and twirls and twists in time to the rhythm of the music. It's a real family show and everyone was cheering and whooping when the water shot up high. (There's a video here).

The following morning we visited another impressive building, the Jaganmohan Palace - this was used as the Mahraja's residency during the rebuild of the main palace and now houses many lovely works of art. I was particularly taken with some Persian paintings which had sweeping brushstrokes in beautiful dark and pale blues. A significant work here is called the "Glow of Hope", it's a beautiful picture of a lady holding a lamp which seems to glow out of the painting. According to Wikipedia, the lady, who was one of the painter's daughters, "is the metaphor of the painting conveying self-confidence and elegance" and, "holding the brass lamp and covering it by the other hand betokens overcoming challenges with unconditional love". It was quite moving to see.

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Despite a patch of bad weather, in the afternoon we went up to Chamundi Hill, it was a bit busy and also getting a bit dark and we wanted to be back at the Palace for the Sunday night lights - a once-a-week for half an hour "show"! So we went to see Nandi, the "sacred collosal bull" which is a statue of the bull ridden by the god Shiva. The statue is over 350 years old and was carved out of a bolder in situ.

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Back in Mysore, the Palace lights were certainly worth the visit, over 100,000 bulbs are lit around the whole palace and the surrounding gates and temples. Again, the atmosphere was really celebratory and friendly, almost like a fun fair, but there wasn't any candy floss!

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We couldn't leave Mysore the following morning without a second trip up Chamundi Hill to visit the temples there. It was busy and, having visited the main Chamundeshwari Temple, we were about to head back to the car when a small procession came past, we followed the men and the statue to another much smaller temple further along the road. In this 2000 year old sacred building we saw a ceremony taking place with the usual prasada (this is usually flowers or sweet food which is offered to the deity for blessing, once it is blessed, the prasada is then eaten by the devotee - not the flowers!), the placing of a tilak (the, usually red, mark on the forehead) and ringing of bells. As always, I was struck by the importance of symbolism in Hinduism, everything has some significance and there were many, clearly very devoted, visitors.

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Driving back down into Tamil Nadu, we again saw some statues of Aiyanar who is a village god who is worshipped to protect the rural villages. They really are quite imposing on the landscape!

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Posted by LunaticLoose 11:36 Archived in India Tagged karnataka mysore nandi mysore_palace chamundi_hill brindavan_gardens Comments (0)

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