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Published: February 2nd 2017
Our three week tour of Southern India started in Chennai (formerly known as Madras). Having not been to India for nearly seven years it was good to be back in this energetic, crazy country. Chennai lies on the Bay of Bengal and supposedly has the second longest urban beach in the world. However, that's a bit wasted for the locals as swimming is not allowed due to treacherous currents.
As Chennai was just a meeting point, we immediately headed off to Kanchipuram - known as the city of a thousand temples, apparently there are only about 180 (but who's counting?). We arrived during the festival of Pongal, when everyone was dressed up in all their finery and visiting the temples. The ladies in particular were stunning in beautiful, multi-coloured sarees. Another feature of Pongal were the cows decorated with painted horns. Cows are everywhere in India, so this time it was quite nice to see a few brightly coloured specimens.
Just down the road from Kanchi (as it is known) was Mahabalipuram (a real tongue-twister), known for its 7th
century rathas (temples in the form of chariots), cave sanctuaries and giant open-air rock reliefs. As
it was still Pongal it seemed like every man, woman and child in Southern India was visiting the sights. Needless to say, it was very nice to get back to the sanctuary of our hotel after a hot and sticky morning.
On our way to our next destination we made a brief stop at Pondicherry. This town was a bit different due to a strong French colonial influence – it was strange to see all the street names starting with 'Rue de la....'. We had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant and had the most delicious Thali, which was constantly replenished. We left with pot bellies!
The main point of interest in Tanjore is the UNESCO world heritage sight of Brihadeshwara Temple. Although we had already seen a few temples, this one was truly wonderful with landscaped gardens and ornate carvings on the temple buildings. It was quite amusing that whilst we were taking pictures of the locals wearing their brightly coloured sarees, they in turn were wanting pictures with us 'foreigners', always approaching us with big smiles and being very polite.
After visiting Tanjore we headed for Madurai where the highlight
for us was a crazy rickshaw ride in the crowded and noisy backstreets. It was interesting to see all the different merchants districts from textiles, pots and pans and mountains of onions. In between all the traders it was funny to see a man ironing clothes in the middle of the road as we zoomed by on our rickety old rickshaw bikes! After that it was back to our hotel for afternoon tea. It seemed like an oasis of calm with peacocks strolling the grounds and trying to pick food from our tables. All very decadent!
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse when we left Madurai for our next destination. There were political demonstrations blocking our way due to the Tamil Nadu government banning the traditional sport of Jellikattu. This is where a bull is released into a crowd of people and multiple participants attempt to grab the large hump of the bull with both arms and hang on to it to claim the prize money, whilst the bull attempts to escape. Due to the ban the local population were up in arms and because of all the roadblocks and thousands of people demonstrating it
took us an extra eight hours to complete our journey. It was quite scary as our tour bus slowly made its way through the chanting crowds with the occasional rock thrown just for good measure! (Two days later things had escalated even further with vehicles being set on fire, tear gas being used and huge riots all over the state. Eventually the government backed down and agreed to re-instate Jellikattu).
One light-hearted moment on this nightmare journey was when we went through the small town of 'Cumbum'. What a great (if inappropriate) name. Thankfully this was our last day in Tamil Nadu, as our next stop was in the state of Kerala.
On our way to Kumarakom we visited a spice plantation (very fragrant with the aroma of cardamom in the air), a tea plantation (very picturesque with the neatly clipped tea bushes dotted around everywhere) and a rubber plantation (very interesting learning how rubber is produced). The hotel was beautiful as it was situated on a small island and the only way to get there was by boat. On arrival we were welcomed with a cold towel and fresh coconuts.
The following morning we boarded a houseboat for a day of cruising and an overnight stay on the Kerala backwaters. The backwaters are a network of 1500 km of canals, 38 rivers and 5 large lakes extending from one end of Kerala to the other. The houseboat was a converted rice barge and had nicely appointed en-suite bedrooms and a comfortable dining/relaxing area. We were looked after very well by a small crew who cooked us traditional Keralan meals. After days of extended coach travel it was so relaxing sitting on the deck sipping a 'Kingfisher' beer watching the world go by. Perfect!
Then it was back on dry land and a short journey to Cochin. After a quick visit to the famous Chinese fishing nets (huge mechanical, cantilevered horizontal nets 20m across) we headed to a lovely hotel located on Willingdon Island. We loved the hotel, as it is probably the first place we have ever been to that provided free ice-creams by the poolside and complimentary Belgian chocolates and cakes (our idea of heaven). During a relaxing afternoon, David read by the pool and Andrew played croquet (yes, you read correctly). In addition the hotel
provided complimentary afternoon high tea and a sunset cruise. The Taj Vivanta was truly a wonderful hotel.
In the evening we went to a local house for a cooking demonstration by an interesting character named Nimmy. Once the demonstration was over we ate all the dishes - the dishes included coriander chicken, stir fried vegetables in garlic and king-fish in coconut milk. All delicious, and if you fancy trying some of Nimmy's dishes yourselves you can find her recipes at www.nimmypaul.com
We then headed for the hills! The hill station town of Udhagamandalam (thankfully, commonly referred to as 'Ooty') is situated at an elevation of 2,240m, so it was quite a shock coming from a sweltering temperature of 35C to a chilly 11C. Tourists flock here because of the beautiful mountains, green valleys and the 'Toy Train' that winds its' way down to Coonoor. It was very pleasant chugging our way down the hill looking at all the tea plantations stretching for miles in the distance. Later on we visited one of the tea plantations for a tour and a demonstration of the process that goes into making our beloved cuppa. The local tea-pluckers
pick 35kg of tea in one day for the princely sum of 500 rupees (about £6).
After that we went back down in elevation to Bandipur National Park. We were very excited about this visit as we were told the park had a small population of tigers and numerous elephants. Unfortunately after two safaris (one of which we had to get up for at 5:45am) we saw a whole lot of nothing! The only thing worth remembering was all the safari trucks skidding off the tracks and careering into trees due to heavy rainfall the previous night. It was like an episode of 'The Keystone Cops' watching all the locals trying to rescue the trucks before they themselves started to fall into the quagmire. Not sure if it was worth getting up quite so early just for that.
Now back to civilisation, and the city of Mysore. Mysore is an impressive place with wide streets, colonial buildings and ornate palaces. In fact we had lunch at the Lalit Mahal Palace (now a five star hotel, well known for its British afternoon high tea). On a visit to a temple at the top of the
Chamundi Hills we saw a sight that we won't forget in a hurry: all around the temple were cows wandering around at leisure (as they do all over India) when one of them started to take a pee. As the bright yellow liquid was gushing forth, a number of women all rushed forward to cup the pee in their hands and throw it back over themselves and their children as a blessing. As we were nearby at the time taking photos we very nearly got blessed ourselves! Phew, a close shave.
Probably the highlight of Mysore is Mysore Palace itself. This UNESCO listed building, built in the 19th
century, is still inhabited by the current Maharaja. The interior of the palace is a kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors and gaudy colours. We had the good fortune to visit on a Sunday when the palace is illuminated at night by close to 100,000 bulbs. An impressive sight.
En route to our final stop of Bangalore we stopped at the temple of Shravanbelagola (try saying that one!). After a climb of 645 steps we arrived at a stone-carved temple with a huge Buddha in the central courtyard. During
all of our travels we must have seen thousands of Buddhas in all shapes and sizes, but this was the first one we have ever seen with an exposed penis!
So after three weeks of travelling and over 3,000km it was time to say goodbye to India. Time to say goodbye to the friendly people, vibrant colours, and culinary delights of eating curry morning, noon and night (with no Delhi belly!)
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