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February 15th 2016
Published: June 21st 2017
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So Thursday afternoon we arrived back in Chennai with 2 nights in the splendid Raintree St Mary's Hotel to visit the sights of the city and prepare ourselves for the dash through Mahaballipurum, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Gangaikondacholapuram, Kumbakonam, Tanjore (Thanjavur), Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) and Madurai - some of these names take some complicated getting your tongue around.

Chennai (Madras, as was) seemed simple enough - a visit to Fort St George, a trip to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. But we discovered the old Museum in Fort St George is closed on FRidays. Thinking it was still worth a look round we took a tuk-tuk there. Most of the Fort is used for government offices and security is tight and at first they didn't want to let us in because the museum was closed, but then we discovered that the Church is open all the time and as soon as we said we wanted to visit the church, we were in! Actually not much of interest other than the church so we then engaged another tuk-tuk for what turned out to be the rest of the day, another church - actually a kirk - then the HQ of the Theosophical Society though that was closed at first so a little bit of shopping to pass the time then a visit to the Theosophical Soc library and a wander round the grunds with huge Banyan trees and little temples for all religions. Very quiet and peaceful. All to do with some odd American and a Russian lady and Annie Besant.

Word from Liz

Arriving in Chennai was just mad. The traffic is crazy. We were well insulated in the big Honda car from the airport, but got a good taste of the fumes and crazy drivers the next day in a tuc tuc, including our driver taking us the wrong way,against the traffic, up a one way street. We spent our day in Chennai visiting churches, the Fort, a Hindu Temple and the Theosophical Society. Our tuc tuc driver spoke a bit of English and made it easy for us to get around, but all I remember is his weaving in and out of cars, busses, tuc tucs, bikes,pedestrians and the occasional sacred cow, amazingly missing them all !


Next morning our driver picked us up for the 5 day canter through all those other places with strange names. And what are these places principally famous for - temples, Hindu temples of course. First Mahaballipuram - for the shore temple and the carved rocks showing the descent of the Ganges and other things. Peter was confused by the Shore Temple remembering that it had been (40 years ago) right on the shore with its toes in the water as it were - now there are rocks and trees between it and the water, turns out Mrs Gandhi said something should be done to protect it from the waves. Make up your own mind - I have the 40 year old picture here as well as the current one.

Pondicherry not actually for temples, really nothing there to visit except the town itself to figure out how much French influence remains - lots of French visitors and little else is the answer! And actually the were in the middle of a Kashmir festival so we got to watch folk and religious performancs by dancers more used to the cold of Kashmir dancing in fur costumes in 30plus degree heat and humidity!

So it was the second day before we really got stuck into temples - two kinds - those built by the Chola kings, pyramidal and unpainted, and temples from a later period marked by their 'gopuras' - towers crowded with painted figures showing many aspects of Hindu deities.

The Chola temples are fairly easy to understand, set in grassy courtyards the central building has an entrance way which leads to a long passage with the lingam form of Shiva in the inner sanctum with Brahman priests in attendance. At one we were fortunate to witness a special ceremony paid for by a devotee ,visiting from London, where the lingam, probably 4 metres tall, had water poured over it, then milk, then turmeric coloured water, then yoghurt, then water again, then rose water, then decorated with flowers.

The later temples are vast and vastly confusing, covering many acres and consisting of hundreds of rooms and corridors and containing thousands of sculptures. Some of this is off-limits to non-Hindus. You really need a map. At some they refuse to let you take a camera inside, then you get in and find they are charging 50 rupees (50p) to allow you to use the camera on your phone. I say 'when you get in, at Maduria it was a close-run thing for Liz who had to cover her arms and rent a wrap to hide her legs, then bake. Inside there are shops, many selling what seem to be decidedly non religious items, others selling food you can offer to the priests. People wanting to be our guides, people praying even!

All this simply served to make us realise we know next to nothing about Hinduism, yet we have had temple priests happily putting red spots on our foreheads (for a donation of course) and even allowing us to take photos of their deities which is supposed to completely forbidden.

The other striking thing is that whatever time we turned up these temples were jammed with people - happily spending the day in family groups just sitting round in the grounds, groups of Brahmin priests (see photo) making sacred fires, accepting offerings, chatting on their moble phones, hundreds of schoolchildren in organised groups. Many people go beyond being happy for you to take their photo - they come up and ask (in sign language). A helpful guy who had already told us how to get to a viewpoint on the roof of part of a temple - where we almost fried our feet (no shoes of course) explained that these are poor village people who have never seen a photo of themselves. In the villages it costs 50 rupees (50p) to have a photo so they pose happily just for the chance to have a brief look at the image on the camera screen.

Liz again

Our next driver picked us up at 8.00 from our swish hotel in Chennai and proceeded to take us on a mystery tour of Southern India, where plans were often unclear to us, but where he was perfectly in control. He drove with considerable confidence and often laughed at the antics of others, but overtook on the inside and on blind bends and hooted lots, pushing others off the road, as necessary. He showed us lots of things on the way and travelling was made a breeze with our own driver and the air con car insulated us from the heat.
We stayed in some lovely hotels, like River view hotel, right off beaten track, down country lane. I had a wonderful swim all on my own in deliciously warm ,huge pool as sun set turned to red behind palm trees, dusk fell and night invaded, lit by a bright slither of a moon.Followed by dinner on a cool, open terrace.
Our driver stopped for us to get a glimpse of ceremonies and rituals on the way, such as the funeral of young soldier from local village who had died in avalanche on Parkistan border. Army officers and local police all looked very smart and crowds of villages crowded round as his body was cremated on a shrine. We also watched as 6 yr old twin girls, quite willingly, had their hair shaved completely off. Their hair was to be donated to the temple, who would sell it to make wigs.
At a river ceremony, where Brahmins were making offerings for families commemorating the death of their fathers, Mr. Morali, who had organised this part of our trip with Peter surprisingly appeared to meet us. He told us we were the first British visitors he's had, so we're being well spoilt. It was interesting to hear about his company and how the fleets of cars and drivers is organised.

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