From the moment I stepped off the plane in Chennai, I knew I was going to like South India.
The air was warmer and more comfortable, the streets were cleaner, and people were happier – not to mention the strange absence of beggars wandering around. We’d left the North in somewhat of a rush, with a few people still feeling under the weather, and it was such a relief to find ourselves somewhere completely different.
What’s the south of India like for a first timer?
As ever, it’s an incredible fact of India; the country is made up of so many different people and locations that you feel as if you’re in a different country from state to state.
In a place like Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state and the fourth biggest city in the country, I expected to be thrust into yet another bustling metropolis like Mumbai or Delhi, that would only serve to disorientate and overwhelm me.
Instead, I saw women wearing jasmine in their hair, and men smiling instead of staring, with a general sense that the people in this area were merely inquisitive at a group of Westerners walking through their midst – no photos being snapped, and no shouting.
The pinnacle of this wonderful change in atmosphere was taking a stroll along the local beach, with our third and final guide leading the way. We hadn’t welcomed any more members to our travelling group – merely said goodbye to some who left us in Kolkata – so were happily able to maintain the same dynamic with each other, which was a welcome relief after travelling for five weeks!
Wandering around the sands, watching children flying kites and boys on horses chasing toy cars, I couldn’t help but compare it to Chowpatty beach in Mumbai, which was equally vibrant and full of Indians enjoying an evening stroll with their families – but for some reason Chennai’s beaches felt so much more relaxed and comfortable.
We watched green canaries tell people’s fortunes by picking cards from a pack, young girls posing with lifesize cutouts of Bollywood celebs, dipped our feet in the waters of the Bay of Bengal and tried copious amounts of street food, from battered green chillies to deep fried banana slices.
We had dinner in a fast food joint, Indian stylee, with huge dosas (big filled pancakes made from rice batter, really light and tasty) and creamy lassis, got slightly confused at our new guide having loud aggressive altercations with the poor waiter, and then found ourselves on the way to Mamallapuram, to start our discovery of the South of India.
The wonderfully bizarre Mamallapuram
Mamallapuram is a small town that used to be a port city in the 7th century, and is totally filled with incredible temple ruins, reliefs, wall carvings, and the wonderfully named ‘Krishna’s Butter Ball’, a huge round boulder somehow balanced on a slanted rock plain that was reputedly dropped by good old Krishna at some point in time (there will soon be a long-overdue post about my absolute love for every aspect of the Hindu gods and their pastimes, so stay tuned).
My favourite carvings amongst these, though, were the crude line drawings on the floors of various temples, where the labourers had made their initial sketches for the blank stone walls in front of them. Alternatively, after a long day of stone carving fun, they used the floor to carve out markings for the games they kept themselves entertained with.
I, sadly, did not convince my friends that this was infinitely cooler than the actual carvings, but I find the human side of these places so much more amazing.
At the risk of sounding gushy, it makes a place a lot more accessible if you can really picture the people who created it, who worshipped there, who wandered around and played dice and most likely slept amongst their tools during the process of creating it…
Maybe I should have done a history degree. Maybe I still should..?!
After two days we were on a train to Madurai, where we discovered that the South, sadly, also comes with a great deal of rather sweaty heat. Luckily, the temples at Madurai more than made up for it. Did I mention that we’ve been to quite a few temples over the last two months? Because we have, and had pretty much made the mutual decision that we were all templed out, thanks, and didn’t really need to go to any more.
Madurai changed all that.
Feminism and religion in Madurai
The Meenakshi temple is dedicated to a GIRL, no less, which is pretty darn rare in India and a great victory for feminists the country over. Built for Parvati in one of her avatars, or forms, it is hands down the most colourful and wonderfully crazy religious sites I have ever seen. It also makes me really want time machines to be invented so I could go back to the Roman and Greek times, and see all their creations covered in the colours they originally were – it just makes such a huge difference.
We spent ages wandering the vast corridors and staring up at the huge entrance towers, and only left when the barefooted-ness of a group of Westerners on the boiling outside concrete grew too much to bear. Just before we made a run for it, though, we inadvertently got caught up in the transportation of a huge golden bull, complete with swaying testicles on their very own hinges, being carried through the halls by at least ten sweating men.
And again, I realised how incredibly dedicated Hindus are to their religion – and again, realised just how much I need to read up on all this!! It almost feels like it’s running away from me, how much there is to learn about the place I’m in before I leave it – but luckily I have at least two months by myself now, so there’s time..
After we reluctantly left the temple, we headed to the Gandhi Memorial Museum, a little building with dusty display cases and smudged ink placards, but where the bloodstained lunghi he wore on the day of his assassination is kept.
It was pretty strange to stand in a small darkened room in front of a pile of soiled linen: even more surreal to try and place Gandhi’s thin body into the cloth, and imagine the moment he said, ‘oh god’, and died with a smile on his lips. Visiting his home in Delhi really moved me in a way I hadn’t really expected: the work he achieved is so incredible, and though it was very much connected to religion, I identified with his words and his policies in a way that was completely separate.
There was something so calming about seeing the places he lived, the minimalist attitude to his possessions, and everything about his attitude really struck a chord with me, from the passion for his people to his vehemence for non-violent resistance. As ever, his life and outlook is yet another thing that I’ve resolved to look much deeper into, when I have the chance (along with Mother Teresa, whose house in Kolkata also really affected me – but there’s another blog for my thoughts on these two people who called India their home).
Just outside the Gandhi museum, I was accosted by the biggest smile I’ve seen in India so far, which belonged to a beautiful man pedalling a cycle rickshaw. He must have been at least 70 and evidently still making a living by taking tourists and locals from place to place.
When we’d entered the museum he’d pulled up alongside to ask, in very simple English, where I was from, and when I said England he jumped down from his saddle and opened a box underneath the rickshaw seat. Pulling out an A3 photo from a tattered cardboard folder, he happily showed me an Englishman standing beside the rickshaw and its owner, before turning it over so I could read a carefully written,
Thank you for taking us around the city of Madurai, and showing us the sights. We miss your lovely smile!
Beth and Robert”
Their address was underneath, and told me that they hailed from somewhere in the Midlands.
The rickshaw dilemma: to ride or not to ride?
Now, this situation posed quite a big problem for me.
On the one hand, there was a clear desire to jump in his vehicle and let him go wherever he wanted, just so I could pay him and hopefully make him happy (that smile had really got to me!). On the other hand, I’ve had an immediate issue with cycle rickshaws, ever since we hit Jaipur and watched a gross amount of chubby, white German tourists shouting with glee as their rickshaws struggled uphill, men weighing a quarter of them sweating in the heat and forcing their vehicles to move. It was disgusting, and I automatically resolved I wasn’t going to let myself be part of that particular tourist venture while in India.
But with this lovely man it was really difficult.
Eventually my decision was made for me, as our rather belligerent leader thrust us into various auto rickshaws and sent us on our way – but I couldn’t help looking back at Rami, and wishing I’d either passed him a couple of hundred rupee notes, or really taken a stand, split from the group and allowed him to take me to whichever tourist place he’d felt like. Gut feelings, eh?
Onwards to Indian beaches
After temples and religion, it was definitely time for some of the best of Southern India – the beach.
We spent two days in the little town of Varkala, arriving bleary eyed from the uncomfortable experience of a non-aircon overnight train (the perils of which involved cockroaches, mice, snorers, loud children and masturbating gentlemen), and so immediately jumped for joy at the beautifully vast stretch of blue sea and white sand, with a mere handful of sunbathers and stray dogs.
None of us could stop smiling, except for the concentrated duration of consuming a huge breakfast on a clifftop restaurant facing out towards the ocean (one of our group was so excited by being this close to water that he ordered a steak at 10am). We followed this with intensive sunbathing for five of us girls, until our sensible Swedish member told us at around 1pm that it was time to gracefully retire from the sun.
The rest of us weren’t too keen on the idea, and it took a significant amount of Swedish cajoling to get us (ie to get me, the pasty english girl) into the shade.
It was just as well we left when we did.
From three hours in the Indian sun, on the southernmost tip of the country, we sustained a ridiculous amount of burned skin in the strangest locations, and duly included a hell of a lot of moaning when bras were put on (burned boobs), when ali baba trousers were hoisted (burned backs of knees) and hair was washed (burned scalps) .
Don’t even bring up the moment when backpacks were hoisted onto shoulders – the screams of pain were not amusing.
Of course, this was perfect timing for the 60 something Ozzie guy in our party to continue his six-week-long rendition of ‘if you don’t wear sunscreen you’ll get cancer’ which has been aimed particularly at me and my ‘fair English complexion’ – except he still hasn’t understood that I actually DO but sunscreen on, all the blooming time, and somehow the Indian sun is too quick for my cream-rubbing-in techniques!! But regardless of the burn, peel and the second day filled with avoiding the previously adored sun, we all loved Varkala.
It was so lovely to actually relax for a couple of days; after moving around constantly with another temple or famous site perpetually on the horizon, we relished the fact that Varkala’s principal tourist attraction involved doing absolutely nothing. And so we drank endless fruit juices at the Juice Shack, lazily wandered from jewellery stall to scarf shop, and showered at least 4 times a day before realising the sweat was there to stay.
This sweaty attitude continued on to the backwaters of Kerala, where we spent another blissful day in a homestay with a wonderful family who cooked us mango chicken (my first foray into meat for about three months and I don’t regret it for a moment – although I only ate a few pieces. I’d never have thought it, but it feels pretty weird to eat meat after some self-imposed vegetarianism!) as well as a feast of other dishes.
We walked through the canal-like waterways, waved at tiny children, watched the water buffalo grazing, made friends with a few excitable goats, took many photos of coconuts/mangoes/bags of rice/kittens/sunsets, and napped a whole lot.
The beauty of Kerala is that there really isn’t much to do, but the landscape in which you’re forced to do nothing is so stunning that all your attention is taken up with simply looking around. In the evening, we dined on fresh papaya, the fattest rice I’ve ever seen, another medley of curry dishes, and finished off with rice pudding that was served out multiple times as nobody could get enough of it.
When the others had gone to sleep, and mosquitoes rose up from the water’s edge and hovered around the front of the house, we turned out the lights and I spent a few hours in companionable conversation with the family.
It was fascinating to hear their opinions on Indian politics (which change drastically from state to state), their country’s huge range of religion – and it came as quite a surprise to hear my guide state, in answer to my mentioning of not following any religion, but being open to suggestion, that he thought I had strong leanings towards Hinduism.
It made me think quite differently about the way I’m absorbing everything in this country – maybe I’m taking in the dominant religion as well?! Definitely something to think about, as Hinduism has certainly always fascinated me, and I have the utmost respect for the dedication its followers show. I guess it’s all part of this India experience, and making sure I take everything this crazy country throws my way.
And so we hit the halfway point of our trip around South India, and now seems a good time to take a breather, as I need to buy myself another bottle of water and make a visit to the loo. Oh, fyi, to the people I’ll eventually be coming back home to; get ready for no-holds-barred conversation about all bathroom activities. I’ve spent the last two months sharing every bit of bowel-related information with people I barely know, and I can honestly say it makes you feel a whole lot better.
There’s even a song about diarrhoea that we collectively composed one night in Bharatpur, to the beat of tablas and the hum of the infernal mozzies… it’s really quite a picturesque moment in my memory.
But I digress.
The second part of the South is coming in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, to quote my father – and hopefully with a more imaginative title than this one. I’m losing my rhyming abilities…