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Published: July 27th 2015
Greetings! I write my first proper entry on this trip from the beautiful French colonial town of Pondicherry, hence the “Chennai to ‘Cherry” title. My trip has got off to a great start, and I feel the blessed freedom from my MA in taking a step out of my life in London, seeing things from a distance (which is always good), and being seriously infected once more with this wonderful thing they call the travel bug. What a joy, and what a wonderful few days these last ones have been. I will recount the details in this first entry, from the touch-down in Chennai to the sitting in this blissful, air-conditioned, crisp, white-sheeted room with a balcony directly overlooking the Indian Ocean.
After two relatively short long-haul hops from London to Dubai, and then Dubai to Chennai (Madras), I arrived rather jet-lagged and bleary-eyed on Friday morning in this city they call the younger sibling of India’s Big Four. What Chennai lacks in tourist sights and activities compared with Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, it more than makes up for in its sheer Indian authenticity, being way off the beaten tourist track. The 90-minute taxi journey from the
airport to my YWCA guesthouse was an immediate wake-up call that I was in India, and passing through the dense traffic, rickshaw throttles and fumes, scores of pedestrians, and sheer chaos of the Indian roads, I was reminded constantly that “TII” – a phrase I have adapted from my experiences in Africa, “TIA” or “This Is Africa”, when one needs to remind oneself that one is no longer at home, and that things are done differently there – “This Is India”!. A serious wake-up call it was, although mellowed greatly by my arrival (90 sweaty minutes later!) at the lush gardens and serenity of the YWCA guesthouse, great choice for my first two nights in the country.
The rest of the day I spent both fighting the jet-lag, and familiarising myself with the way things are here. This involved a two-hour stroll around the local area, known as Egmore and near one of Chennai’s main rail termini. I was quickly reminded that Indian pavements are meant more for sleeping vagrant-types and all manner of smelly things, and that the pedestrian is to walk along the edge of the road itself, mere inches away from the passing rickshaws and motorbikes.
I also had to pluck up the courage to make my first crossing of one of these darn roads, involving a fairly determined attitude towards getting to the other side, trusting that the rickshaws and motorbikes coming towards you know that you are there and will adjust their line of travel accordingly. It is the larger, air-conditioned cars which you have to watch out for, the drivers who seem to be in a bubble away from the rest of the traffic and pedestrians, and who drive oblivious to it all assuming that everything will move around and avoid it, which it normally does. I was surprised not to see a cow in the road in Chennai at all during my stay there, as I remember this was a common sight even in the cities of the North on my last visit to India ten years ago. Either it is different in the south, or things have slowly been modernising since my last visit. My stroll also involved many friendly looks, stares and hellos from passers-by, as well as the occasional soliciting of services in the forms of rickshaw rides and restaurants. A successful activity indeed, and I returned to the
YWCA with a much more confident understanding of how things are (again) in India.
The next day, my first full day in India, I had also planned to get used to things here, and decided to see the sights of the city by flagging down rickshaw drivers, getting a feel for the difference between the price that some of them want to charge you, and the price which they should be charging you. I found out from this escapade that they can request more than double what a journey should cost you, and that a firm but friendly approach of sticking to your guns, and making every effort to walk away when you’re not happy with their price, seems the best way to do things. Also to trust your instincts with the rickshaw driver – some just exude an air of unreliability and rip-offs, others seem much more amicable and agreeable. The former types seem to find you, whilst the latter you find them. Indeed, a useful day of familiarising myself with the TII system here.
So, familiarisation complete, I enjoyed a wonderful day of tourist-free sightseeing around Chennai. First up, the Fort St George, overlooking the Indian
Ocean to the east of the modern city. This was the first trading post built by the British East India Company in the whole of India, in 1653, and I found it fascinating to think that this was where the whole of the British colonial era in India pretty much began. Today it is mainly home to government offices and headquarters, but there was a small museum open to visitors with fascinating colonial pieces, and the nearby St Mary’s Church, built in 1680, and Britain’s oldest surviving church in India, and according to a sign on the way in, supposedly also the first British one built east of Suez.
After this, a short rickshaw-hop south took me to the San Thome Cathedral, supposedly built upon a tomb which once housed the remains of St Thomas the Apostle. I am not too sure how much of what it told here is based on truth, myth or legend, but as it goes, St Thomas is supposed to have travelled to India to preach the Good News not long after the death of Jesus. He was generally welcomed in India, and made his base around Chennai. One legend has it that a
local chieftain requested the assistance of St Thomas when a huge tree trunk became trapped in a river, flooding nearby farmland. He had heard that St Thomas could perform miracles using the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, which she is said to have given St Thomas upon her assumption into heaven. St Thomas merely touched the trunk with the girdle, and the locals were able to move it aside with ease. I mention this story also as a huge splinter said to be from the original log is displayed in a dodgy area immediately behind the cathedral and is still believed to be miraculous today, after it supposedly prevented the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami flooding and damaging the cathedral. The cathedral is built upon what used to be the final resting place of St Thomas before his remains were transported to Italy. There still exists a chapel there, displaying one of the bone fragments of the apostle.
And the final stop on my Chennai tour, a long rickshaw ride out to the south of the city, towards what is called the St Thomas Mount. This is a small hill on the city’s outskirts, with sweeping views north towards the
urban and chaotic sprawl of Chennai, upon which legend also has it that St Thomas was martyred, by a local attacking him with a spear. Indeed, the spearhead itself is displayed back at the San Thome Cathedral. Here, at the top of this mount, lies a small shrine built by the Portuguese in 1523, commemorating his martyrdom, and his apostleship in India. A beautiful place to be indeed, St Thomas being one of my favourite apostles in his natural human instinct of desiring to see in order to believe, as well as his profoundly simple proclamation upon believing, “My Lord and My God”, a common phrase amongst the Christians of Chennai in remembrance of their local apostle and saint.
So Chennai, a lovely start to my journey around India. My second stop I arrived in yesterday, having taken a four-hour government air-conditioned bus south along the coast to Pondicherry. Pondicherry, along with Goa and a couple of other places, remained an anomaly throughout the British colonial era, being founded and run by the distinct global power of the French. Whilst mostly Indian today, the town does exude a French ambience in its French Quarter to the south, with smaller,
quieter tree-lined streets of French colonial houses and mansions. There are also three hugely impressive churches spread around the centre of town, along with a good dose of French cafes serving croissants, baguettes and some darned good coffee!
Rather than stay in one of the numerous refurbished French houses, which was still a tempting option, I chose to stay in what is called an “Ashram Guesthouse”. Ashrams are religious and/or spiritual centres and communities which are ubiquitous throughout India, each rather unique and often headed by a single guru or teacher, living either in person or in memory. The main ashram in Pondicherry is called the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and was founded in 1926 by a man called Sri (or Saint) Aurobindo, and a French-born lady known as “the Mother”. From what I gather, the ashram does not teach ways or paths to enlightenment, but enables its members to find their own way, through personal and internal reflection and meditation. It does not appear to be religious, more spiritual, although it believes in the divine and the achievement of a form of divine consciousness. As well as the Ashram centre in Pondicherry, the community has also created its own
St Thomas Relics
The spearhead which was said to have martyred St Thomas, and a fragment of his bone
township just to the north of Pondicherry, called “Auroville”. Unfortunately my time here does not allow a visit to such a fascinating place, but the settlement is home to over 2000 inhabitants from over 40 nationalities, living in universal, cash-free harmony together. It sounds very interesting indeed, and as a result, instead of being able to visit, I decided to book myself into one of the three “Ashram Guesthouses” that the community runs in Pondicherry. Rather than being a spartan, monastic-cell type abode one might expect, this is a stunning room with a balcony directly overlooking the seafront and the Indian Ocean. The air-conditioning, two ceiling fans, fridge, hot water bathroom, and in-room wifi add to the comfort of the place. Perhaps I’m not experiencing the communal living as experienced by the Sri Aurobindo members, but its guesthouse has a good vibe and is a lovely retreat from the heat and bustle of the Pondicherry streets.
So after arriving yesterday, I just planned an afternoon stroll along the seafront, which actually enabled a most wonderful encounter with two fantastic Turkish visitors, Mehmet and his wife Esra, both very spiritually minded. Over French food and coffee, we discussed such amazing
View towards the Indian Ocean from San Thome Cathedral
This is said to be a splinter of a log which St Thomas miraculously moved for a local ruler nearby. It is also believed that this splinter has miraculous powers today, having supposedly prevented the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami from passing and damaging the Cathedral!
things as Sufism, ultimate reality and angels. Following this, evening mass in French at the Notre Dame des Anges church, interrupted by a stunning monsoon storm, and a huge bolt of lightning just outside the building which made everyone jump and a few children cry. And finally, a wander back to my guesthouse, stopping by at the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple on the way. The Hindu temple is dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and as such has a resident elephant who gives pilgrims and visitors (and the odd tourist like myself!) a pat on the head upon the offering of a small cash donation (which it takes willingly with its trunk, and goodness knows where it ends up – I did not see any coins being snuffed out again…!!). Fascinating!
And today, after a wonderful sleep, just a leisurely exploration of the town, its beautiful French-flavoured backstreets, three churches, and wonderful seaside ambience.
These last few days have been great, thoroughly enjoyable, and a very positive start to my journey around the south of India. It has been very much Christian-themed so far, and I believe my trip tomorrow may take a turn more towards the (majority)
Hindu side of India. This is all fascinating to me, after having taught Religious Education for four years now and completed my MA in the subject – it’s almost like a reccy into the real world of religion, and spirituality, with India to my mind being one of the global hotspots for religious interest and diversity. I am certainly hoping that this trip, as well as being part of my huge enthusiasm for travelling the world, may even deepen my subject knowledge and understanding of religion and religions for the next academic year…!
Next up, I head towards Madurai tomorrow, for probably the longest leg of my trip. I had thought of originally catching a five-hour bus to Trichy (with two famous temples, one at the top of a huge rocky outcrop in the middle of town, and the other supposedly the largest temple in India), and then a three-hour bus to Madurai the following day. However, with one of India’s most popular temples at Madurai, and one more at its southern-most tip at Cape Comorin which I aim to visit after, I thought this may be doing a bit of a temple-overload. Thus, I have managed to book
myself onto a 6-hour train leaving a town called Villupuram, around 40km from Pondicherry, directly bound for Madurai (instead of stopping in Trichy along the way). This does mean I need to take a bus or train tomorrow morning to Villupuram, as well as arriving in Madurai around 10pm. Whilst I don’t really like to arrive in a new place so late, it does seem like a good option to miss out Trichy, to hopefully spend a bit more time in Kerala later. Anyway, we will see, what will be will be, and after all, TII (This Is India…!!).
Thanks for reading, and until the next time!
All the best
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