January 17, 2008

Tamil Nadu Roundup

Heading south from Chennai we stopped off in Mamallapuram, a beach side town that gets good kudos in the Lonely Planet and thus has become a popular travellers hangout. There's nothing out of the ordinary about this dusty Indian town save a little hub of streets that look as if they've been transplanted out of a Thai beach resort. Lined with shops selling souvenirs, oversized fisherman pants and restaurants with "backpacker" menus i.e. banana pancakes and pizza this little place is certainly different but also disappointing. Opportunity has knocked loud and clear so everything is overpriced, gearing everything towards the tourist has meant it's almost impossible to get a proper Indian thali meal anywhere inside the little tourist enclave. After a little spell of tinkering around the touristy shops and being hassled to buy at every turn the "backpacker hangout" appeal of Mamallapuram had lost it's luster. Getting away from the wannabe Thailand element however Mamallapuram has a lot to offer on it's own merit, Indians visit the town to see the impressive carvings that have been etched into massive boulders throughout the town and the Shore temple by the beach. The highlight of this stop for us was a day out to the local park to see the carvings with the added entertainment of seeing cheeky monkeys steal peoples drinks, unscrew the bottle caps and polish off the contents. Certainly a lesson to hang on tight you your belongings.

The park also houses Krishna's Butterball, a huge granite round shaped boulder perched precariously on a granite hill. Tacky I know, but posing underneath the boulder or pretending to push it down the hill is a given. Marcus walked past it giving it a quick shoulder and was met with a reprimanding whistle from the park warden, after that the fun and games were over - it makes you wonder how confident they are that the boulder is not going to roll away.

Feeling the freedom of having ditched kilos of baggage we hopped on a packed bus to Pondicherry and jostled with the best of them to gain some territory. Pondy, as it's known for short, turned out to be a very strange place. It was a French colony until 1954 and a remarkable degree of French influence exists to this date, the town is divided into the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or 'White town') and the Indian quarter (Ville Noire or 'Black Town'). Many streets still retain their French names and French style colonial villas are a common sight. With the magnificent backdrop of buildings, the police force dressed in tight uniforms with funny red hats and streets named Rues the French quarter is quite simply very French.

Pondy is famous on two more counts however, ashrams and low taxes. Pondy was the residence of one of India's most renowned Freedom Fighter and Spiritualist Sri Aurobindo. Her teachings continue to reach the people through the many retreat centres attracting Indian and foreign tourists alike . A few kilometers out of Pondy is Auroville, an entire city dedicated to human unity based on Sri Aurobindo's vision. As part of the French colonial handover Pondy enjoys special administration status, meaning it has it's own elected legislative assembly and one of it's implemented policies is lower taxes on goods in Pondy than in neighbouring states. The effect of this tax is most evident in the sale of alcohol, it's almost 50% cheaper here than elsewhere in India and boy does it show. Outside of the French quarter every third shop is an liquor store or a bar, the area around the bus station is literally one big binge drinking area. People bus in and drink all day and catch the evening bus home - usually that's a six hour return journey!

If you're ever in Pondicherry do not trust the information given in the bus station. After waiting for hours due to innacurrate information we found ourselves on a less than desirable evening drinkers commute bus to Tanjore - half the occupants were unconscious. To add to our woes we arrived late at night and the driver decided that it would be better to not let us off with everyone else in the centre of town but to drop us at the new isolated bus station miles our of town in a field. Adding an hour to our day we finally battled our way back to the centre of town and found a room for the night. The next morning we gave Tanjore a fresh start and immediately liked it, all the main sights were within walking distance - which is always appealing. We climbed the watch tower of the Royal palace for fantastic views over the city and over a large school yard where at least twelve games of cricket were in full swing. It's a testiment to how fanatical the country is about the game. As dusk fell we spend the evening inside the walls of Bhihadishwara Temple watching the pilgrims come and go, stopping to be blessed by a "swami elephant" who after receiving a one rupee coin in his trunk, touched people's heads. Unfortunately we don't have any pictures of been blessed by the elephant, we had an altercation with the elephant owner over how much a picture was worth and it all seemed very unholy after that.

A short journey down the road took us to Trichy, where we visited the colourful temples and climbed barefoot to the top of the rock fort temple. The food in Trichy was excellent so large portions of the day were dedicated to eating. Throughout Tamil Nadu State we've found some of the best food around the bus stations where fresh parathas, idlis and "bull's eye" fried eggs are churned out day and night.

:: Badam Milk being cooled & frothed ::

Our next stop was Madurai where the food got even better and coffee addiction was an understandable weakness to develop. To work up an appetite we visited the colourful Sree Meenakshi temple complex, infamous in the region. The temple is huge, the decoration is awesome, particularly the big towers at the gates, called gopurams which are 45m high and filled with hundreds of statues of Hindu gods painted in bright colors. Before leaving we also took a trip to the Ghandi museum detailing the life and times of the revered man. We'll always remember Madurai for it's numerous "Chicken 65" stalls and for it's spectacular badam milk. Each night we walked home past a little shop with a massive vat of badam milk on the boil. Part of the service of the beverage is a ritual where the milk is poured from one jug at a height to the another repeatedly in order to add air and froth. This is a performance in itself where the vendor pours the drink from seemingly impossible positions and manages to catch it all in other jug without it spilling all over himself.

Our final stop in Tamil Nadu state was Kanyakumuri, the very geographical tip of India where the Arabian Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal all meet. It's also a very popular tourist destination, pilgrims come to see the temple of Goddess Kanya who once upon a time defeated demons and secured freedom of the world. Off the very tip of the land is a small island with a huge statue of the wandering monk Swami Vivekananda, one of the most famous and influential spiritual leaders of the philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga. After seeing the sun rise and set over the three oceans it was time to turn the corner, quite literally, and make our way up into Kerala.

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