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Published: February 11th 2015
We set off from Heathrow on a grey English morning, to board BA's brand new Boeing 787. David points out the elegantly upturned wing ends as we see the plane from the air bridge. “It's just a plane”, remarks Sara. Oh dear. Anyway David is impressed, it is fabulous, almost silent, and with a stylish cabin that looks like it has been designed by BMW. And a lovely crew. We don’t often praise BA, but on this occasion, fair's fair. Then it's Chennai airport (or Madras as it is still called by the airlines) , 12.35 in the morning. Only two flights coming in, the other being Lufthansa disgorging holidaying Heinrichs and Brunhildes. Obviously giving Greece a miss this winter......can't think why. Anyway it the fastest Indian airport exit ever, and we’re checked into our hotel by 1.30am.
Uncharacteristically, we sleep till 10am and dash down to breakfast before it ends. First breakfasts on holiday are never quite right – you pick a mix of different cuisines and end up feeling slightly queasy. Well, we did anyway....
Mr Hussain, our driver, arrives early to take us out – a good sign, given he will be looking after us for
the next 4 weeks. We ask to go to Sao Thome basilica, but end up at St Thomas’s Mount instead. No matter, we had it on our list of places to see! It’s a small chapel on a hill built on the spot where St Thomas was martyred, run through with a spear or an arrow in 72AD. Indian Catholic churches have a style all their own, with an unusual mix of the Catholic delight for statues and saints, often surrounded by flashing lights, and Indian styling. Still not sure about the statue of a saint wearing a dhoti. There are allegedly spectacular views over Chennai. Problem 1: there is a heat haze/pollution so not much is visible. Problem 2: Chennai doesn’t seem to have any tall buildings so all you see is a hazy urban sprawl.
Undeterred, we ask to visit the Kapaleeswarar Temple, dedicated to Shiva. ‘Temple is closed from 2.00 to 4.00’ says Mr Hussain. It is 1.30 and the temple is half an hour away. Note to self, tell him the w whole itinerary upfront next time to avoid this problem. Ever adaptable, we ask to fill in the time by going to Guindy National
Park. This is less grand than it sounds, being the grounds of the old governor’s mansion, now protected as a nature reserve. Mr Hussain nods in approval at our choice. Once there, we find you can’t walk or drive though it, but you can visit the children’s park or the snake park. We opt for the snake park, for the princely sum of 70p including two camera permits. It proves much more interesting than expected. The snakes are all kept safe behind glass walls, but that does not stop the pace being plastered with signs warning of the dangers of touching them! As well as snakes, there are crocodiles and an extremely difficult to detect green chameleon who really does look for all the world like a leaf. OK I know it sounds a bit boring but it was quite interesting.
Next we manage to communicate successfully our desire to go Sao Thome, a white building glittering in the bright sunlight. It’s proud boast is that is one of only three churches to be built over the tomb of a saint, the others being St Peters in Rome and Santiago di Compostela. We read about the lives of the apostles, learning of their varied but all gruesome deaths for their faith (David particularly enjoyed that bit), and visit the tomb of St Thomas the apostle, who was obviously moved down from the hillside to be buried.
There is still half an hour to fill in before the temple opens. Mr Hussain suggests a trip to the beach. We concur. At first sight, this looks like a mistake – miles of sand with a few empty stalls. We wander slowly towards the water, and find there are fishing boats pulled up at one end. This is our first reminder that in India a picture only tells half the story, as it cannot capture the smells. Here, the good mingles uncomfortably with the bad – a strong scent of sandalwood and incense by the boats and their nets piled on the sand (presumably from incense burning to seek blessings before going out to fish) co-exists with the smell of rotting fish from the piles of small dead fish, about the size of whitebait. Unwanted catch? Too small to sell? Who knows...the dead rotting crow impaled on a stick poking out of the sand (explain that one) certainly offers no clue.
As we ponder these questions, a fishing boat arrives back to shore with its catch, crashing through the breakers. This reminds David of the eighteenth century arrivals in Madras from England, who after six months at sea had to clamber down from their ship into a rowing boat and be taken to shore through these same breakers, hoping they would not be tossed into the sea by the pitching of the boat and drowned before they even set foot on land. Anyway the fisherman start pulling the boat far enough out of the water to stop it floating off on the next wave, but this is a harder job than might be expected, taking four men a good ten minutes. Finally, with the boat tied up to another one, they tie the nets, with the catch still inside, onto two stout pieces of wood, and carry it up to a roadside stall where shoppers wait patiently for the nets to be unravelled and the fish put up for sale. Definitely the freshest fish ever!
Back to the Kapaleeswarar Temple. The main feature is a typically South Indian gopuram (gateway), 37m high, decorated with lots of coloured Gods. Inside there a number of smaller shrines with their own towers. It is interesting enough, but not spectacular. So we decide to head back to the hotel for the day.......
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