The Southern Tip of India


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July 31st 2015
Published: July 31st 2015
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Me, Cape ComorinMe, Cape ComorinMe, Cape Comorin

Memorial to Hindu holy man Swami Vivekananda on the left-hand island, statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar on the right.
Dear All

Greetings from Cape Comorin – the southernmost tip of India. It certainly feels like an achievement to have arrived here, being perhaps the third most important cape in the world, after Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. It is also the meeting point of three major seas of the world: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It is a stunning location, with wonderfully rough seas and strong winds, and definitely one of the highlights of my trip thus far.

I believe in my last I mentioned that my journey was to take more of a swing towards Hinduism and its temples, and this has indeed turned out to be the case. They say that Tamil Nadu is the most fervently Hindu state in India, and this has certainly been evidenced by my experiences in two of its major temples over the last few days. The fervour of the religious devotees has been palpable, and although I must admit it bordered somewhat on the frenetic today, it has been thoroughly fascinating to witness.

So I write from where I last left off at Pondicherry, and having spent a couple of
GopuramGopuramGopuram

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
wonderful days a stone’s throw away from the Indian Ocean, I made a rather interesting journey to my next destination, Madurai. This involved waiting in my hotel room till around noon, which I do not like to do when I travel as I prefer to start early and get as much of the journey covered as soon as possible. I took an ordinary (non-AC, though actually preferable as when the bus gets going, you really get the drafts coming in, and the open windows afford some wonderfully scenic views) government bus 40km to the nearest major train junction at a small town called Villupuram. This was a hectic journey, lasting around 1.5 hours. I had secured a seat for myself, but with absolutely nowhere to put my large backpack, it ended up on my knee with my smaller one at my feet. The only person who could fit in on the seat next to me was a diminutive lady, who was very understanding of the fact that my backpack had to rest on part of her lap too. So understanding in fact that she was asleep for most of the journey, with her head bobbing on and off my shoulder
Arches and PillarsArches and PillarsArches and Pillars

Tirumalai Nayak Palace, Madurai
the whole way. On the opposite side there was a gentleman throwing up for most of the journey, which I had to try to put out of my mind as the bus just continued to fill up, eventually with more people seemingly stood up than sat down. A hectic journey, with lots of shouting, a bit of pushing at times, but eventually it got me and my backpacks there, with the desire to avoid non-AC government buses again for as long as possible. Wondering how I was then going to spend the next 2.5 hours on a hot, dusty Indian station platform in the middle of nowhere, I discovered the most welcoming delights of the Indian Station Retiring Rooms system. These are like hotel rooms, only at the station, and with minimal facilities and comfort. But still, checking into one for two hours gave me a chance to lie down and chill in my own space, waiting very comfortably for my train. And when it came and I boarded one of its carriages in “AC Chair Class”, I was reminded of the thorough pleasure of Indian rail travel from my trip here ten years ago. Most of the journey I spent on the in-between carriages bit, with the door wide open, gazing out across the beautiful Indian rural landscapes, farms and villages, with a monsoon downpour at one time pouring down blankets of rain upon the countryside, and later a stunning sunset over distant rocky, boulder-type outcrops. A wonderful six hours later I arrived at my destination, having really understood what is meant by the enjoyment of travel being not so much in the arrival, but in the journey itself. A wonderful experience.

Still, arriving at 9.30pm it was straight to my hotel room, and straight to bed. I was given a super-deluxe, temple-view double room for the price of a standard room, and was not disappointed in my stay at the Hotel Supreme, Madurai.

The next day, I explored the main attraction of Madurai, its nationally renowned Meenakshi Amman Temple, dubbed the Taj Mahal of the south. Rather strict entrance rules meant I had to don trousers and leave my camera at the entrance, so photos here were taken on my mobile phone (which was allowed) and are thus a bit blurred. The temple was originally built in the 17th century, by local ruler Tirumalai Nayak, of
Hindu devoteeHindu devoteeHindu devotee

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
the Nayak dynasty once prosperous in the region. It is best-known for its 12 stunning gopurams, entrance towers encrusted with hundreds of statues of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes – apparently the south gopuram alone has 1,511 of them. This was followed by a visit to Tirumalai Nayak’s palace nearby, a beautiful building of courtyards, columns, arches and domed roofs. Not quite so touristy, the rest of the day was spent in a Vodafone shop, spending two hours entangled in Indian bureaucracy (involving passport copies, visa copies, passport photos, proof of address, a call to the hotel where I was staying at, connection confirmation and so on and so forth…) in order to obtain an Indian SIM card – a highly useful acquisition to my travel goods in order to make hotel reservations in advance without having to search for a local telephone booth, and well worth the wait. I also bought a very basic, non-touch screen non-smartphone phone as my English phone, as they always are, is locked. It took a while to convince the salespersons that seriously, all I wanted was a mobile to make mobile telephone calls with and nothing else, call me old-fashioned!!

And yesterday,
Nandhi Bull, Meenakshi Amman TempleNandhi Bull, Meenakshi Amman TempleNandhi Bull, Meenakshi Amman Temple

The Nandhi bull is Shiva's vehicle, each Hindu god has a vehicle upon which it travels. Shiva's is a bull.
another wonderful journey, that I was again originally dreading but in the end turned out to be amazing. This was six hours in a non-AC government bus from Madurai to here, Kanyakumari or Cape Comorin. I was not looking forward to it after my previously mentioned hectic experience in a government non-AC bus from Pondicherry to Villupuram, along with something that had vaguely disagreed with my stomach the evening before. In the end though, it was a journey which really drove it home to me that I am actually travelling again, opening up the sheer sense of freedom that is felt by being on the open road. There is generally a time for me, usually by the end of the first week of my travels, where I get this blissful feeling which reminds me why I travel the open road – the sense of the world just being out there ready for me to immerse myself in. I experienced this this time in a beautifully breezy, nearly-empty bus zooming down the highway towards the southern tip of India, past rice fields and romantic rural landscapes and with the ever-looming presence of the Western Ghats hills coming closer in the distance.
Thousand Pillar HallThousand Pillar HallThousand Pillar Hall

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
A fantastic journey, and what a fantastic two days I have had since arriving, exploring the very southern tip of India.

Cape Comorin is the British name for the rocky outcrop marking the southern, triangular-pointed end of India. In India it is now called Kanyakumari – Kanya meaning “virgin” and Kumari being the Hindu goddess of the ocean, and thus the town is dedicated to the Hindu Virgin Goddess of the Sea. Today I think has been the highlight of my trip so far. Not only is this just an amazing location to be in, with waves crashing from three seas all around onto stunning rocky outcrops and islands, I have been really blown away by my visit this morning to the Kumari Amman Temple dedicated to the sea goddess herself. There are very few foreign tourists here, as in the whole of Tamil Nadu, and I noted that this temple seemed to be one of the very few in India to allow non-Hindu tourists into its Inner Sanctum. The Inner Sanctum is the part in the centre of a Hindu temple which is considered the holiest as it houses the “murti” of the god/goddess to whom the temple
Pudhu MandapaPudhu MandapaPudhu Mandapa

Entrance hall to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
is devoted. A “murti” is a statue believed to be infused with the very spirit of the god/goddess him/herself. This means that when a Hindu looks into the face of the murti, they truly believe that they are looking into the face of a god. The murtis are thus treated with utmost devotion, being washed, clothed, fed in the form of food offerings, and sometimes even put to bed at night. Since the Inner Sanctum is so holy, Hindus rarely allow non-Hindus into this part, but in this temple I was allowed to enter. What an experience! I am mostly aware of people having to cover themselves up in temples, wearing trousers and something to cover the shoulders. However, in this temple, not only did male devotees have to remove their shoes (and socks), they also had to remove their shirt. This felt very strange, to be in a holy place wearing only my shorts, but actually felt extremely freeing as well as enabling me to fit in with the other worshippers around me. I was lucky to visit during the puja (worship ceremony), which involved quite frenetic bell-ringing, clapping, horn-blowing, and chanting. There were just so many people, at
FlagpoleFlagpoleFlagpole

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
times pushing and shouting, it became very hot, and in the end quite frenetic with one lady being forcibly removed by the temple priests for pushing in. I initially felt quite ill at ease, wondering what would happen if one of the priests did not know that the entrance guards had let me, a non-Hindu foreigner in, but they were all very very friendly to me, shaking my hand, as were the devotees who offered wonderful smiles, and one showering me with holy water. This was a truly unique experience, and I am so glad to have done it. I have never been inside the Inner Sanctum of a temple in India before, and the memory will stay with me for a long time. Of course I have no photos of this, as no cameras were allowed inside, but I do feel very blessed to have been there, and maybe even more confident in teaching about Hinduism in my classes next year.

Indeed, my time in Kanyakumari has been just great. There is something quite special here, in the joyful atmosphere of the tourists who have travelled thousands of miles to come to the southernmost tip of their country,
Temple TankTemple TankTemple Tank

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
in the wonderfully refreshing strong ocean breezes, the crashing waves against the rocky outcrops, and the stunning monument to the Hindu holy man Swami Vivekananda and statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar built on two islands lying just off the coast.

So, it is from this incredible point on the southernmost tip of India that I sign out for this time, having the most amazing time and experiences down here. Tomorrow I catch a morning train back northwards again, but this time into Kerala. I am looking forward to this very much, as according to the Lonely Planet, Kerala is like “India through the Looking Glass” – India, but not quite as you know her – a "blissed-out...world away from the frenzy of elsewhere". This sounds good to me, and my first stop is a place called Kollam (Quilon), the southern gateway to the famous backwaters of Kerala.

So, until my next which will most likely be from Kerala, thanks for reading, and all the best.



Alex


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Flag at half-mast in PondicherryFlag at half-mast in Pondicherry
Flag at half-mast in Pondicherry

On 27th July 2015, former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam passed away. The week is set aside for a seven-day state mourning, with the day of the funeral yesterday (30th July 2015) being a public holiday in Tamil Nadu where he was born.
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Gopuram

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
Memorial to former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul KalamMemorial to former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
Memorial to former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

Hailing originally from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, posters of the former president became ubiquitous throughout the state following his death on 27th July 2015.


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