Published: October 24th 2009October 24th 2009
Chennai - museum - dance of Shiva
"Nataraja and Natesa" - amandastandava, the dancing form of Shiva popular in South India, representing Shiva's cosmological dance bringing the universe into being and maintaining it. Modern artwork[?]
This blog is late because I had a problem with my camera and couldn’t get the photos off it until now. There should be another one or two soon. It relates to the days 29/09/2009 - 4/10/2009. As you might notice, most of it was written about three weeks ago.
As well as all the jungles and temples, waterfalls and mountains, beaches and rivers, elephants, lions and tigers, that you see on the tourist brochures, the typical image of India should be men peeing against walls. This probably explains why the cities smell like the area in a 20 metre radius around a Chinese toilet. As you might have guessed I came to this conclusion last week
I stayed at the same semi-luxurious hotel in Chennai again, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. This time they got the bill right and this time they had Wifi working. It cost over $7 per day, which is a rip-off, but what can you do. Suddenly for the first time in my trip I had no real goal, other than heading back to Australia for a week or so at the end of November for my sister’s wedding, nowhere I
Chennai - Marina beach
I think there's water there somewhere, behind all the horses and tightrope walkers and vendors and picknickers and what-have-you
had to be. I didn’t realise, but I think I found this slightly disconcerting. I ended up bumming around Chennai for three days not doing or seeing much, mainly just enjoying the hotel’s wifi and air conditioning; so much so that when the post office nearer me couldn’t send my suit back, I realised I was going to have to cart it up to Delhi as well because I’d left it too late to try any other way of sending it back. After the three or four days in Chennai I headed up to Delhi, almost on the other side of the country. It was a long trip and I hadn’t seen all I wanted to in the south, but I really want to take the bus from Manali to Leh, through the Himalaya. This is billed as the second-highest road in the world, although that may not be true. Some passes there are over 5000 m (I think the highest is 5328 m). More on this next week or the week after (I’m there now, but as you might have noticed this blog is a bit late)
I guess this is where all the women are, in Second
Chennai - Marina Beach
park near Marina Beach
Air-Conditioned class carriages (and I guess, first class). In the poorer parts of India you’d be forgiven for thinking that some genetic accident had left India with only males, as there seem to be lots more men than women working, shopping, or generally walking around the streets. This isn’t of course true with the middle classes, who ride in 2AC (Second Air-Conditioned class). The classes of railway carriage in India are complicated, there’s about seven of them but not all of them on every train. I don’t know what the story is with first class, but the highest common one is Second Air Conditioned, where the bunks are two high (four people in a compartment) and the air conditioning pushes the temperature down to what feels like -10 C. Third Air Conditioned is similar, I think, but the bunks are three high. This doesn’t seem like a big difference but the point is that when people aren’t sleeping, at least the middle bunk has to get folded up, so everyone’s sitting on the lowest bunk. Sleeper class is a bit like Third Air Conditioned except without the air conditioning, so there’s a cornucopia of fans all over the ceilings and
Chennai - Fort St George
entrance to Fort St George area - the museum is visible, but it was shut when I got there
in every other conceivable nook and cranny. I found Sleeper class better for seeing the scenery as the windows seemed bigger, and also the doors at the end of the carriage were open so I could walk over and hang out of them, but perhaps 2AC wouldn’t have been much worse in that regard if I’d been able to work my way into a window seat.
There’s a family in the car, before the train leaves. The mother and daughter are travelling, back to Delhi I think, and a couple, I think the sister of the travelling mother, are sitting there with them to see them off. They switch effortlessly between English and at least one other language - I think Hindi - in the same conversation with the same people. The English is easier to understand too. They’re talking about someone they’d gone to visit who was undergoing chemotherapy. They are all very impressed with the service and the cleanliness. “If you’re willing to pay a little bit more, you can really get good service” they say a couple of times. This is the other India. There’s the India of these people who wear jeans and travel 2AC
Chennai - Fort St George
apparently this is historically significant. I don't know why. Fort St George area.
and get chemotherapy in world-class hospitals, and then there’s the India of that beggar I mentioned in Trichy who probably wouldn’t even know a difference if he got cancer, or the rural peasants who struggle to get by on $1 a day. Or, the India of the cities and the India of the country (although that doesn’t quite work in Mumbai where 56% of the population lives in slums). By the way I read somewhere that Chennai is the medical capital of India, with heaps of good hospitals. I can’t vouch for this but there did seem to be a lot (even in Trichy and Madurai). I also don’t know if it’s true (as was being reported around the world a few years ago) that an Indian doctor earns less than a call-centre worker in Bangalore.
Because the India of the slums and villages still votes, politics at the moment is trying to woo these people, particularly in terms of the “backward castes”. I don’t know if this is because it’s easier than trying to impress people who’re actually cognisant of the issues, or because it actually impresses the middle classes anyway, or if it’s out of genuine, Gandhian,
Chennai - slum
driving back, we passed my auto
driver's home area, I asked if I could see hsi house. It didn't stop him ripping me off for the fare though.
concern) but today (Oct 2) is the 140th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi’s birth. While Obama’s speech about Gandhi’s influence on American politics was widely publicised, I didn’t see any particular celebrations in Chennai for this man who never held any national office but whose image is on all the banknotes, but of course there’s lots of discussions about him in the media, and the government renamed one of its employment programs after him. Anyway, the up-and-coming young(-ish) politician Rahul Gandhi (the son of Sonia Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, and therefore no relation to Mohandas Gandhi) chose this date to take all the senior ministers from his party and some of the MLAs, a total of well over a hundred people, and force them all the stay in poor, dalit
villages. They’re all going to various little hamlets, staying in the houses of people who earn a dollar or two a day. They won’t be allowed to bring any bottled water or their own food. It strikes me that this plan might backfire on him, since his plan to build his party from the third force in India politics to the first or second could be seriously set back if
Chennai - river
random shot of a river, while walking back over the bridge
all his senior politicians contract TB or typhoid.
Chennai was overcast most of the time I was there, the sort of weather where you think to yourself that it’s almost pleasantly cool, but still end up sweating as if it were much hotter because of the humidity. It didn’t seem to turn into much actual rain though. There was a forecast for rain through much of central India but it dissipated, and as the train travels up through the centre it’s still cloudy, but no rain. Yesterday’s (3/10) The Hindu, a large English-language broadsheet, reports that at the official end of the Southwest monsoon, it has been the worst (driest) season since 1972. ( A week or two after I wrote this, the news reports came out that hundred(s?) of people had died further west, in Kerala, in flooding, and many millions of dollars of damage done. )
Anyway, back to Chennai. It has some really nice colonial buildings, most of which I forgot to photograph. The St Mary’s Church, a massive white building which I think now houses the “Chennai Corporation”, the central train station, the massive, red, High Court, supposedly the second-largest court building in the
Chennai - downtown
random shot of a street in Chennai
world, as well as a number of other landmarks I didn’t see including a few other impressive churches and temples. I got an auto driver (if I haven’t mentioned it before, “autos” are autorickshaws, similar to Thai “tuk-tuks”) to take me to the Marina beach, and to the Fort St George area. The beach has a warning about not swimming in the water, and is, I think, several kilometres long. The auto driver took me to the wrong spot so I didn’t get to see the lighthouse. The beach was very wide, I could barely see the water through all the people riding horses, playing cricket, selling trash, picnicking, and generally hanging out. At the edge of course, there were guys peeing against walls, and a small boy defecating between two motorbikes. The beach area itself seemed clean. I don’t know if there were more people there because it was the eve of a long weekend. It’s just across from a university, and also has a number of monuments and such-like, not an unpleasant area. Unfortunately I got to the fort area too late to see the museum or much else, and while I could see the outline of an
Chennai - museum
an old (18th-century??) cannon
old moat, most of what I saw were office workers leaving the various offices and shops.
I discovered that where the middle classes hang out are the shopping centres. I ended up going back to the one where I bought my battery charger a few weeks ago often to eat. They have Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, and a lot of cafes and restaurants serving real Chinese, Thai, and North Indian food (not the “Tamil-ised” versions you get in the smaller towns, which are poor imitations rich in chillies. The burgers at KFC are actually burger buns filled with meat, not buns filled with a patty made of dhal with a tiny bit of meat mixed in, like at the only place that did imitations of western food in Madurai. There’s all sorts of Western-style stores selling mainly electronics and fancy western clothes. Many of the stores delight in advertising that they have branches in Dubai or London, while there’s a whole section from Sri Lanka (by the way did you know that "Sri" means "sacred", which is why you see it in so many gods' names? hence "Sri Lanka" is "Sacred Island" in sanskrit). Except for some of the
Chennai - museum - parvati
sculpture of the goddess Parvati from the early Chola period
pashmina stores, no-one hassles you, and there’s no guys peeing against walls.
I also visited the museum, which is fairly big, as you’d expect from India’s fourth-largest city, where there is a 10 rupee (less than $AUS 0.25) fine for littering. It has the normal stuff that the smaller museums have - lots of stuffed animals in various states of repair, skeletons, skins, etc. However it also has a wide collection of more interesting stuff, and a nice section with some really nice bronze sculptures of the various Hindu gods and goddesses and some explanations about them. It also has a fair collection of sati
stones. Parts of the museum are clearly more modern and well signed than others, so I hope this means it’s being developed. There’s not much explanation of the older artworks or those from other parts of the world (there’s some nice Angkor pieces there but little explanation about them). I think there was more interesting stuff, and that I saw other things in Chennai, but as I’m finishing this blog off in mid-October a few weeks later, I forget it all, and my camera’s playing up so I can’t look at the photos.
Chennai - museum - Ganesha
Ganesha (right) and his mum Parvati, from the late Chola period
So the train took me to Delhi where I stayed only a couple of days before heading up to Manali and then on to Leh. I was out of the tropics again, and up in the North of India. I’ll write about that next “week”.
There are more photos below