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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Moving on from Pondicherry

INDIA | Thursday, 19 August 2010 | Views [1238]

Sat 7th August - Today we hit the road on the next leg of our journey. After the soft start of Pondicherry (aka Puducherry, aka Pondy), we may not see some comforts for a while. 
First destination for the day is Chidambaram. Home of the 'Lord of the dance', and the Natarajah temple. No not Michael Flatley, but the original dance-off contest between Shiva and Khali. Shiva won and got the title 'Natarajah'...Lord of the dance.
With a hot and sticky day ahead, we got up early, and with a small breakfast and coffee, took an auto-rickshaw to the bus stand. Very few Indian buses have any intelligible English words on them, so you have to ask for the bus and trust the person you ask. The first bus we boarded, was a Government bus via the ECR (East Coast Road) which was due to leave in 15 minutes. Whilst we waited i had a nice chat to a local banker called Gopi, who was helpful and friendly. The time arrived, the bus started and then stopped. Problem with the bus, so it has to go to the garage. Of we got and off to find another bus. It wasn't even 9am yet, but the temperature was roasting. Fortunately, there was a lady who helped us get on the right bus. Normal tactics when it arrived...the crowd surges and you have to fight your way on to the bus and grab a seat. No politeness here, just every man/woman for themselves. When you have luggage, it is a bit fraught. Attempt number two of getting away, and we made it this time. For a couple hours the bus weaved its way through the traffic, horn blazing. The ox and cows amble nonchalantly along, pulling their loads, with a crazy world passing by. Many ingenious forms of transport add to the mix as usual.
Once we reached Chidambaram it was only about 15 minutes walk to the Natarajah temple in a straight line from the bus stand. It lives up to the reputation as an awesome place to visit. With our luggage in tow, we couldn't visit the inside together, so we took it in turns. No photograhy alowed. A desk by the entrance almost forces you to pay a donation for entrance, although it should be free with no obligation. I did make a donation and was lucky enough to see the fire ceremony, which only happens six times each day, accompanied by drums and ringing bells. One of the walks from one shrine to another holding a tray of flames whilst chanting is performed along with the bells. The pilgrims were there en-masse battling for their place to make their offerings to the waiting Brahmins. When they see a foreigner they make all sorts of gestures, but are basically after more donations, so beware. Gurus are everywhere, usually with a study group of pilgrims or wandering around with their bags and bowls and powder to annoint you, for another donation of course.   
After the temple we jumped a rickshaw back to the bus stand and caught the first bus leaving. Had to confirm on the bus that it was the right one as usual. You get used to everyone nodding, even if it is the wrong  bus. And then there is the Indian head wobble...can be mistaken for yes/no/maybe? Destination Tanjore ( Full name is Thanjavur). 3 1/2 hours for Rs41 each. A steady journey to horn music as usual, with some sections through open countryside and large lakes. Arrived in Tanjore in little over 3 hours. The bus didn't give us chance to get off in the old market area, so we overshot it and had to catch an auto-rickshaw back to town. As the better option in the book, we aimed fot the Rathnam Hotel where we picked up a non-aircon top floor room for Rs700. They sell the aircon western toilet room for Rs1000, not negotiable. A nice cup of chai in the next door restaurant whilst we waited for our room to be readied. An interesting event...i gave them a 100 Rupee note which had a small hole in it, and the waiter refused to take it...i stood my ground and won. They try it on with foreigners, but they will pass it to someone else. When you look at the state of some of the notes...falling apart and filthy...to have the cheek to refuse one with a little hole in it. The bus driver gave it to me with some change. So there was no way i was going to accept not giving it to the restaurant.
India's TV is awesome, and can mesmerise for hours. Bollywoodesque videos play incessantly on numerous channels. The Energy is amazing, the colour electric, the dancers are stunning and hot, and the coordination superb. You may not understand a word of it, but who cares when the entertainment value is so good!
So what is Tanjore (Thanjavur) famous for?   It was once the centre of the Dravidian history and the Chola empire, from which spread Hinduism far and wide. It is responsible for having some of the most awesome temples in India, some of the richest culture, and the happiest people. Here's for a smiling session then....
Brihadishwara Temple & Fort...commissioned in 1010 by Rajaraja...the king of kings. He had the names and addresses of his dancers, musicians, barbers and poets inscribed into the temple wall.
Also has once if India's largest Nandi (bull) statues. We arrived at about 8am, and had missed the morning pooja by the look of it. Rubbish strewn everywhere, from what looked to have been a mass meal. The lighting was lovely and we could wander through the perimeter covered walkway, where a story in pictures unfolds along its walls. The central temple is atmospheric and ancient. The head Brahmin annoints woshippers as they file through. Chanting in the background. Some time to sit and watch the colourful spectacle of the ladies walking in groups. An elephant was at the entrance. Drop some money into its trunk, and it dabbed you on the head. So sweet...been blessed / thanked by an elephant.
Next was Thanjavur Maratha Royal palace & museum. It was near to 10am when we got here, and it was just opening, so was quiet. A guy latched on to us, saying it was his duty to walk with us. The reality is that he wanted to be a guide, and for a donation of course. we wanted to go around on our own, so politely tried to lose him after a while as he wanted to explain every tiny item. He asked for money as expected and as i didnt offer him a large amount of money, he got stroppy and started to curse us. This is something that i got annoyed with the last time i was in India. One minute smiling and friendly, the next minute nasty and cursing.
The main palace building can be climbed through a labyrinth of narrow stairs. The view over the town is excellent, and shows how many communication towers this place has. Too many.
We departed from Tanjore before mid day to Trichy. The guidebook quoted Rs200 For an auto-rickshaw between the old and new bus stations. The hotel said Rs70. But the better alternative is local bus between the two at Rs3. Now isn't that a bit different! The local bus was also a much greater experience. Full of smiles and asking to have their photos taken whilst they posed. The true beauty of India...its people. Sure, you get some who are a bit difficult. But that happens anywhere. The heat was blazing away today and Shiera had taken three showers before we departed. It doesn't matter, as within minutes you are soaked again.
One of the ladies on the bus spoke some English and showed us to the bus for Trichy, which left as soon as we got on board. Rs15.5 for the 90 minute journey. A new highway is under construction out of town, and part way along the bus had to stop due to a loud knocking noise. Turned out to be some of a type had shredded itself. It got cut off with a knife, and we were away in a couple of minutes.  About half an hour later, same sound again...off ame another bit if tyre with the knife. Fortunately, we made it to Trichy, as we had three other wheels to ride on!
Trichy...full name Tiruchirappalli, has a few sights to see, so we decided to stay a couple of days and book into somewhere nice. The hotel Femina, which is only a short walk from the central busy stand in the Cantonment area of town (near to the train station too), is a business hotel with conference facilities and a swimming pool. A non-aircon room was 1100 Rupees (Breakfast included), so more expensive than i have been paying...but worth it. 
A busy town with plenty of restaurants around, and enough life to make it interesting. Even a booze shop. Shame they only sold warm beer :-(
As with almost everywhere, the people are friendly and inquisitive. 
Bus 1 from the central bus stand. Doesn't matter which one..1A, B, C etc. All more or less do the same route and go to the tourist places. 3 Rupees to our first stop at the Rock Fort, which happens to also stop outside of the Lourdes church, another prominent landmark. We weren't sure which route to take for the main entrance of the rock fort, and ended up taking the long way around. Wasn't too bad though as we saw some lovely village scenes where the building were so quaint. Old ladies and children sat outside, looking as though they came from another era that hadn't changed for long while. 
Once we reached the entrance, there was an elephant chained up as an attraction. These beautiful animals are often decorated and the thing common to most Indian elephants is the two-tone pink/dark grey of their flesh. Amongst all elephants, they are the most regal looking, harking back to the days when they were commonly used as the royal way to travel.
Shoes off and into store, as bare feet is mandatory. Entrance fee was only 10 rupees, but a camera is 30. What got us was the very harsh bag searches, to scrutinise phones etc. Anything that resembled a camera would attract another 30 rupees. Almost nasty about it too. This is nothing to do with the Hindu faith... pure money making scam. I am equally abrupt back with them as it is an infringement of personal dignity, and just push past them. I paid for 1 camera, and that was enough.
The temperature was so hot today, and the ground like a hotplate. It made it almost impossible to walk on at times. Hessian bags had been laid down in places as stepping places, but not enough. Once out in the open for the ascent up the steps to the temple on the rock, it was a case of focussing the mind like walking across hot coals. The view from the top is excellent. Trichy is colourful. But so densely crammed. Not much greenery visible in the place. We got a preview across the river of the next location for today at  the Sri Ranganathaswarmy temple...the biggest in India. For now, time to take in the cool breeze from the openings in the temple sides and enjoy the view. 
We had a few photo stops on the way down with some local ladies in their pretty saris...never get enough....
Back at the bottom and a slow walk back to the main road to catch bus 1 again to our next destination (4Rs each).
The Sri Ranganathaswarmy temple is a city. It sprawls over a few square kilometres, and is a nested wall within a wall, each with a towering Gopuram entrance. The outer Gopurams are collosal and brightly painted. From a view point within the inner area we were able to get a great view of most of the temple. One of the oldest gopurams is white. The painted ones happened at a later date. There is a separate entrance fee for the viewing terrace, which closes for lunch. We were escorted by a friendly guy, who obviously tried to sell us himself as a guide. 280 rupees for the whole thing. Not bad value, but we do like to just roam free and see for ourselves, so declined his services. He did have an offcial guide permit badge.
One of the amazing things about this temple, is the sea of sleeping bodies. Hundreds of multi-coloured people lay strewn in the shade of the halls. Small shrines are a feast of activity and add to the wonder of this place. I can sit and watch them for hours as they go about their rituals, which have become engrained into them since birth. For us it is a strange world full of mysticism and questions, about what is in their minds and why they do certain things. For them it is just everyday life.
Another guy latched onto us and kept following, trying to tell us something every time we stood still. He was great, and yes, he also wanted paying. This is a fact of life in India...Ingenuity of how to survive. Foreigner means possible income or donation. Cannot blame them one bit, and you have to love them for trying so hard. I try to be fair with them, but, including the constant onslaught from the myriad of beggars, it does get a little tiring sometimes. Still, we have to be patient and polite as it would be unfair to be unkind to these lovely people. 
Word of advice...buy some socks to take into temples, that you can prove have not been made from any part of an animal. The whole reason they don't allow shoes is because most shoes are made from some part of an animals skin. That is taboo in Hinduism. Some people wear plastic or fibre overshoes. It does protect from the heat. We will try to buy some for future visits.
The guy who showed us up to the viewing terrace did give us a good tip about going down to the river, so we made that our next destination. Had no idea what it was called until later, but Ammamandapam was so worth it. It is the location for the bathing ghats, and also home to an awesome spectacle as numerous Brahmins gather groups around them to talk faith to them. A guru with a cow wanders through, and scenes of poverty mix with scenes of  absolute devout worship. 
The bathing area is fenced off and theoretically segregated with males in one place and women in another. The reality is that it is mixed. In amongst it all, women are washing their clothes; beating them on the stone steps as they lather them with soap. Brahmins bathe together and add a surreal feel to the scene. One lady did her teeth in front of me. Why should i mention that? Well, she pulled out a brown stone, broke a corner off with another stone....pounded it into a powder, then rubbed her teeth and gums with it before washing her mouth out in the river...along with the soap suds, floating 
rubbish, and who knows what else. Now that's hygenic isn't it! Anyway, it is another one of those sights you don't see in the west...bring on the Colgate!
So this cow, with its horns painted bright blue, is walked by its owner through the crowds...depositing slimy messages as it plods through the people eating their rice from banana leaves. Out in the open it is splashed with water by worshippers who bless it. Next to it are a circle of Brahmins dealing out advice to enthralled Hindu worshippers, whilst incence fills the air, and they are annointed with Vermillion, Ochre and white powders. Orange clad guys sit on the steps hands held out stretched for passing donations...faces painted with bands of white and red. Poor mothers clutch onto their babies and beg for anything to help with the next meal. Flames are lit on candles which are places around figures of Nandi, Shiva's bull as people chant to themselves whatever they wish for. In the background, a sea of bathers are soaping and washing themselves to clean their souls...tell me India is dirty....well depends on your viewpoint. Yes, the streets could do with a clean, but the people...make your own mind up on that!
Bus 1 again back to the central bus stand, passing the railway station on the way, and tired after an amazing day. So much to absorb. Some amazing photos, of some very amazing people. Each bus journey...more hands shaken, more smiles and photos requested. Incredible India with an infectious smile...and you know what...even more special for me as i am sharing this wonderful experience with someone i love...pure pleasure...with some sweat and pain thrown in to add to the flavour.


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