Rajas and Rickshaws

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April 19th 2017
Published: May 1st 2017
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We are in the huge city of Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu and today find ourselves tip-toeing on echoes of the past lineage of Rajas who ruled Madurai distant times past, and who lived in the grand surroundings of the Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Built in 1636 by the man himself - Thirumalai Nayak - the architecture of the building is a mixture of Dravidian and Rajput styles, which to this English novice translates as extremely high, domed ceilings supported on huge white columns with loads of decorative tiling. Now just an open shell of a building, we are free to wander this luxurious palace unhindered by the wrath of Rajas keeping the riff raff at bay. The central section of the building is filled with plastic chairs laid out in rows, theatre style, so I'm guessing the palace is used for performances of some sort. There are ladies offering to paint henna patterns on willing arms of tourists for a few rupees and some of my group obliges. They have hastily put together patterns worked up in orange henna paste squeezed from a tube depicting designs of lotus flowers, a peacock and an elephant created for them by the smiley lady with a little toddler in tow.

After our morning visit to the Palace the rest of the afternoon is freetime, so after a bit of a wander which includes for me an Indian optician experience, trying and purchasing some off-the-shelf reading glasses to replace the ones I'd brought with me that broke on the plane journey over, we get a tuktuk back to the hotel and cool down in our lovely air conditioned rooms.

The afternoon's activity is a rickshaw ride around some of the quieter side streets of Madurai. If you know the chaos that is Indian traffic you will realise the trepidation that such an activity engenders in our group as we nervously assemble in pairs with our rickshaw riders outside our hotel. It quickly becomes clear from our vantage point in the lead rickshaw that the rule of the road is to give way to oncoming rickshaws that cycle straight out into and across oncoming traffic. At least we really, really hope this is the rule of the road as it's what our guy is doing, no braking at all as he approaches a junction, just a cursory look right and then straight out into the oncoming hurtling mass of tuk tuks, cars and lorries that beep their horns furiously to let our guy know they have seen him, or to warn him he should get out of the way, or to vent their frustration at such wanton carelessness or just because they were randomly beeping their horn at that precise point anyway so add an extra toot to make sure!

We come across groups of children playing in the street who run or cycle alongside our rickshaws smiling, waving and saying hello. We pass people sat on the side of the road on up turned crates selling their beautifully piled fruits and vegetables. At one point we cross a bridge over what would have been a really wide river, but which is now grown over and filled with plants, rubble and the omnipresent rubbish that's strewn in every open place in India. Along sections of the bridge are people sleeping rough on the backs of carts and lorries or just on the roadway itself. It feels a bit uncomfortable to me to be sat on the back of a colonial throwback rickshaw, swanning about as tourists while many of the people we pass are obviously struggling with their daily lives. I have to remind myself that our tourism brings with it many jobs and related services that actually help people financially, but it makes me put my camera away for this section, ashamed at my relative wealth and laziness.

Whenever the rickshaw guys hit an uphill slope they are out of their saddles, pedaling as hard as they can before the momentum dies. Incidentally they are for the most part bare footed which seems a vulnerable thing to put those feet through. Anyway, once they can pedal up hill no more they get off the bikes and pull them along instead. It's at this point that I feel a tad guilty for all the massive meals I've been eating since I arrived in India!

We leave the rickshaw guys to have a break and catch their breathe while we go for a wander around a little market area. Again there's lots of bananas for sale only this time a more unusual looking banana is on offer - a red one! When we peel them they look and taste just like regular bananas. Very weird. I spot a cute little teenage cat, and despite lots of coaxing and 'eye smiling' I can't get it to come and be stroked.

We continue on our hair-raising rickshaw ride and get to an area of Madurai where the building trade has all its bamboo scaffolding poles for sale or hire, stacked vertically in open warehouses alongside the road. We again get smiles and waves from the workers we pass. People are so generous and friendly. We wend our way back through the side streets and arrive, thankfully unscathed, at our hotel. Our guys get their well deserved tips and we say goodbye to our rickshaws and what seems to be a business that's dying out in India these days so omnipresent are the tuk tuk takeovers.

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