A KENYA AIRWAYS 767 TOOK US high over the savannah and past Mount Kenya before darkness fell somewhere over Somalia, and we sipped Amarula with a plane-load of Indians and Koreans.
After six hours Bombay appeared out of the night, first the red lights of fishing boats, then the spectacle of South Bombay – Colaba and Chowpatty lit up beneath us like an electrified map.
We had touched down at Chhatrapathi Shivaji International Airport by 2am, and a quick check of our entry stamps at the baggage carousel reminded us that it was our sixteenth wedding anniversary! At 6am we were massed in the concourse with hundreds of others waiting for daylight to make a break into the city – at least the mosquitoes had plenty of flesh to choose from besides ours…
The buses were on strike, but we had decided to take a taxi anyway, and jumped into a waiting black and yellow Premier for the thirty minute ride to Churchgate. We screamed along at breakneck speed with complete disregard to the oncoming traffic as pedestrians ran for their lives out of our way. Our driver smiled at us over his shoulder at each near miss – it was fantastic to be back in India!
We successfully directed him to Preetam’s apartment block on A Road, and arrived at the home of our host just as his family were getting ready to start their day. Six year old Shavari was getting ready to go to school, Preetam was off to the gym, and everyone else was preparing three year old Akshay for kindergarten – Preetam’s wife Asavari, Gulab the nanny, Bhai the cook, and Prakash the runner boy, while one of the drivers stood by. We were presented with a life-giving cup of masala chai and a warm welcome before collapsing into bed for a few hours sleep ahead of another long day.
Bhai had prepared a breakfast of poha for us and we spent the afternoon re-familiarising ourselves with a walk around downtown. It had been over ten years since we had visited Bombay and little but the name had changed…
The visual feast of life in a city of fifteen million people crammed into a space twenty kilometres by thirty kilometres was entertainment in itself. On the footpaths vendors sold everything from chhatis to mobile phones; pedestrians bustled; black and yellow taxis pulsed; and the temptation of delicious morsels was at every turn – bells jingled out the crush of sugar cane juice, chat masala was mixed by expert hands, aloo cutlets were fried to perfection and chikoo milkshakes taste every bit as good as we remembered. The first bookshop we wandered into had a selection of birdguides for Dave to choose from, and I bought a summer salwar kameez from a street stall for 200 Rupees.
Back at home, Lata, Preetam’s mother, kindly invited us to join her at a classical dance programme , and we met her at a nearby bhavan where we sat on the floor next to the musicians in a tiny room crammed with a very appreciative and discerning audience. The female dancer used her body to tell the story, she danced with her eyes and made music by slapping her feet on the marble floor with scores of bells on her ankles. A sitar and harmonium accompanied the tabla player who danced with his fingers to make an extraordinary rhythm which he also vocalised to the delight of the crowd in the room. It was such an honour to watch them perform and improvise together, and on the way home with Lata and her friends everyone agreed that it was “a very fine programme”.
It was after 10pm when we all tucked into a chicken curry and pilau which Bhai had made, and we didn’t get to bed until midnight so the following day was a complete right-off…
I barely made it to the tourist office for some maps and to the train station before returning to sleep for the rest of the day and all that night to try and make up for the two hour jet lag and lost nights sleep.
By our third day in Mumbai we were starting to feel back to normal, though still taking it pretty easy. We kick-started our day with a spicy vada pav and a lassi, then headed down to Chowpatty Beach to relax in the shade of the casaurinas, watching the other Sunday morning recreationists, chatting with Sheri, a young DJ on holiday from Indore, and tasting the local delicacy of bhelpuri followed by creamy kulfi.
We took a city bus back to Colaba, the driver politely blasting our way with a hand horn through a more colourful part of town to the Causeway, where we made some more essential purchases – shoes for Dave, and a box of sweets for our hosts…
Dinner was a deliciously spicy goat curry, pressure-cooked and served with wholemeal chapattis, then everyone was glued to ‘TV India’ to hear all about the current Bollywood scandal – Shakti Kapoor entrapped by a young starlet. better was the previous evenings ‘Stardust’ awards which had featured the Chief Minister’s son dancing centre stage like a filmi star!
Train tickets in hand, we were up at 5am the next morning, tip-toeing out of the Sagane household in the dark to catch the 6:10 to Aurangabad from Victoria Terminal, less well known as ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’.
The Tapovan Express took us into the Maharashtran interior with seven hours of non-stop entertainment. The vendors were slow to get started – “chai wallah, chai”, “kopi nes, kopi, kopi”, but they were soon joined by a plethora of food wallahs catering to the needs of India on the move – “ahhh, idli, idli”, “cole drink”, “garam samosa, garam”, “chikki, chikki, chikki, Lonavla chikki!”, “anggur, anggur, box anggur”…
EVEN WITH A FEW LONG STOPS we arrived in Aurangabad on time, and after a slow shuffle out of the station, walked in the shock of the midday heat through town to the bus stand, gleaning some information from the tourist office along the way. At the new Hotel Mezza young Wagmari was willing to negotiate, so we put our bag down there in a room with attached bath for 200 Rupees.
Aurangabad was a pleasant enough place, though we didn’t go exploring until the cool of evening. Our first ‘pure veg’ thali was had at the ‘Janata Mutton Hotel’, a 25 Rupee feast of five dishes plus achar and onion, an item unavailable on our previous visit due to ‘the great onion crisis’.
A visit to Ajanta Caves was the main purpose of our journey to Aurangabad, and we were up early for our day excursion to try and beat the heat. The hundred kilometre bus ride took two hours, so the heat had already won by the time we arrived. But it was a beautiful spot, and after a quick hike up to a panoramic viewpoint we spent the rest of the day sheltering from the sun inside the hand carved caves.
Langurs loped and squirrels and birds flittered around the parched ravine which was the site of a Buddhist monastery dating from the second century BC. The once marvelous tempera murals which filled the caves were in a bad way after two thousand years, but the fragments which remained were masterpieces of skill and colour, and we took hours to peruse the artwork and bas relief carvings at a very leisurely pace.
The next day we decided to stay on in Aurangabad, and again made an early start to visit the fort at Daulatabad. A bus dropped us off at the gate with a wave, and we made our way through the zig-zagging corridors of the entrance way past a grand mosque built from a plundered Hindu mandir and converted into a Bharatmata temple. It was bizarre to see a statue of Durga fill the old mihrab with ॐ painted above!
Beyond a moat fantastically chiselled around the base of the rock fortress the ‘passage of darkness’ spiralled upwards, our flashlight barely adequate to help us find our way through the bat infested gloom which was once booby-trapped with secret passages, holes in the floor, and toxic gases.
Back in the light of day on top of the hill, Aurangzeb’s palace commanded wonderful views of the surrounding countryside from it’s pavilion of Moghul arches. And, except for the squirrels and peacocks, we had the whole place to ourselves – the local tourists didn’t catch up with us until we were ready to go back down. A nice group of fifteen families from Sholapur photographed every stage of our descent, “Your picture will come fine, Uncle…”
After a lunch of samosas with tamarind chutney and a pineapple milkshake, we headed back to town for a siesta with bag of grapes and chikoo to wash down a sweet lassi with ice cream. We strolled to the Panchakki, an old mosque set in a garden nice enough for a few hours chatting with some local boys, Harish and Nizam.
For dinner we returned to the Janata for ‘ready meals’, and our return custom earned us an extra slice of baigan and a plate of tangy curd.
The next morning we were on our way. First a plate of poha at a roadside stall, “chai, sir?”, then we climbed aboard another Ashok Leyland for the four and a half hour ride to Nasik. We passed through a couple of chaotic towns, and in between marvelled at how our driver could pass the other vehicles so recklessly without hitting them. And at how hairy some of the other passengers ears were, the old man in front of us had a combable shock…
NASIK WAS A MORE CHAOTIC CITY, and out of the few hotels around the bus stand we ended up in a cosy little laneway at Hotel Basera. It might have been quite nice once upon a time, but had ramshackled itself into our 200 Rupee price bracket. The receptionist drew us a mudmap of the city and, following his careful instructions, we walked down to the Ram Kund, a very holy site on the Godavari River surrounded by shrines and temples, and alive with people using it’s sacred water for their daily needs, from a ritualised dip to washing an auto-rickshaw. Children played in it’s fast flowing stream, and women laughed together while doing their laundry on the ghats. In the back streets, the Kala Ram temple was also a hive of activity. A new statue was being installed, so much chanting and music accompanied the everyday scene of worshippers socialising and priests fussing over their pooja attire.
As the sun set more people were drawn to the bathing ghats, kids played cricket, snack stalls and hand-propelled kiddie amusement rides appeared, and the pious set afloat candles on little rafts giving the entire scene a special magic…
As a side trip from Nasik we made a pilgrimage to an equally holy site on a mountain near Trimbak, a thirty minute bus ride away. Even early in the morning there were already pilgrims on the ancient pathway which climbed up beyond the colourful little village to a sheer rock face. There the path became incredibly steep, carved deep into rock clefts with tunnels guarded by monkeys who terrorised the passing pilgrims. Dave stomped on bravely with me following in fear, a young woman clung to me in Dave’s wake while behind us children cried in distress and a family tried to retrieve their pilfered picnic bag!
The trail took us up and over the Brahmagiri Hill to the source of the Godavari River. Though really only an unimpressive seepage, it was a greatly revered place. We circled a slime stained rock inside a small shrine and chatted with our fellow hikers – Bhagat and three of his students, and the family who had successfully recovered their picnic and gave us prasad which more resident monkeys threatened to steal from us if we didn’t eat it quickly enough!
The return hike was very social as we stopped to greet the numerous pilgrims making their way up. Having run the gauntlet of monkeys, again we stopped to rest by a tiny dharamsala with a baoli (step well) in the shade of a fig and mango tree forest where we met Vijay, a lone pilgrim from Calcutta who told us happily that he was born alone and would die alone, but was still bothered that we didn’t have any children, “…there is a medical problem?”
Back in the village we lunched on pav bhaji and a lassi before returning to Nasik for a welcome siesta. In Nasik all our meals were taken at Suruchi Restaurant next to our hotel. They did an excellent masala dosa, a good 25 Rupee ‘rice plate’, and just a round the corner we were served fresh mango juice with plenty of smiles.
To complete our Maharashtran excursion we returned to Mumbai by bus. An auto-rickshaw took us to Mahamarg bus stand in plenty of time for the 6am departure, which was a gut-churning ride jostling with the heavy truck traffic down the Western Ghats. Roadside signs warned us of the dangers as we careened past overloaded Tatas on blind bends. ‘LET YOUR LIGHT NOT BRING DARKNESS INTO THE WORLD OF OTHERS – USE YOUR DIPPER!’.
We stopped for refreshments with sixty kilometres to go at Hotel Jai Gurudev, the conductor comically interrupting our chikki munching with a blow of his whistle and a “chelo foreigner!” when it was time to go.
FROM THE TIME WE REACHED THE outskirts it took over an hour to make our way to Mumbai’s central bus stand, and from there we found bus number 70 would take us to Colaba Causeway. From Electric House we walked through the pulsing streets, “You want pashmina shawl?”, “hello, hashish?”, to Arthur Bunder Road. It was a neighbourhood far removed from Churchgate, but our 450 Rupee plywood cubicle in the Hotel India had a wonderful view of the Arabian Sea to the Gate of India, and there we would have a different perspective on Mumbai.
The first thing to do was to make a train reservation and we spent over two hours at the booking office to attain seats on what was obviously a popular route. Even in the ‘foreign quota’ allocation there were only sleepers left on the Mandavi Express leaving in four days time. We had no trouble filling in the time until then, and had another enjoyable and relaxing stay in the cosmopolitan heartbeat of the country.
We wandered down to the Sassoon Docks early one morning to check out the catch of the day. The pungent smell greeted us well before we reached the gateway of Dock One, and the further we ventured in the more manic the scene became. Slippery black ooze squelched under foot, men pushed long wooden trolleys through the crowds hissing and yelling for side, women carried dripping baskets, and fish lay everywhere piled in baskets of ice or spread across the concrete dock. There were giant manta rays, pomfret, tuna, sharks of all sizes, and bizarre looking deep-sea specimens. Women were doing most of the trading, and shoved their way through the throng of people intent on their business – we were practically invisible in the crush, only occasionally catching the eye of a buyer who wobbled his head in surprise intoning us to join in, or the cockle merchants whose dispute we quickly settled, “they’re called shellfish…”.
For a more subdued shopping experience we headed to Fort, and browsed in the air-conditioned comfort of the Bombay Store, Fabindia and Chetana where we pondered over the handmade paper products, rich textiles and wearable accessories. In between we popped over to the maidan to see how Mumbaikers spent their Sunday afternoons. Cricket balls fired in all directions from dozens of games being played simultaneously and side by side. A team of African soccer players were barely tolerated, especially as they teased the cricketers with their fancy footwork each time a cricket ball entered their field of play. The Indians cursed them under their breath, “monkeys…” with broad smiles – ten of them would have been no match for a single football player! A match ended in jubilation on one side of the maidan while a fight broke out on another, the security guard only joining in with the interested spectators. And just to keep everyone well amused, a foreign woman appeared with a gigantic black dog who though it his duty to procreate flamboyantly with every other pedigree out for an innocent Sunday afternoon stroll…
Snack-tracking to keep up our energy would have been tough if we had to choose between the tasty morsels on offer – so we just ate everything we fancied. We rehydrated on sugar cane juice, lassis, and masala milk; breakfasted on puri bhaji in Lala Nigam market; lunched on crispy jaffles filled with beetroot, potato, mooli, cucumber, tomato and topped with mint chutney and chilli sauce. We snacked on gajar halwa and chocolate walnut barfi, and took our evening meals at Sachin’s Madras Cafe where the pure vegetarian rice plate included bhindi masala and spicy aubergine.
Our last day was busy tidying up loose ends. We off-loaded four kilogrammes of shopping booty at the GPO, where the same old parcel-posting procedure was still in place, though streamlined so it only took an hour including stitching and wax-sealing.
We wandered up through Crawford Market and the adjacent alleyways to the Mumba Devi temple, and once we had feasted our eyes on the city’s patron deity our Mumbai experience was almost complete. We had only to feast our lips at the Majestic Hotel on gadbad (scoops of flavoured ice cream layered into a glass with jelly, fresh and dried fruits, nuts, and topped with a carefully placed spoonful of falooda syrup), it’s creation watched over personally by the friendly proprietor…
The Mandavi Express departed at a very convenient 7am. City bus number 124 swept up through the darkened streets, empty except for the sleeping street dwellers shrouded like corpses on the footpaths. We had time for idli sambar (fluffy coconut rice cakes with spicy vegetable curry) at the railway canteen before finding our places – a compartment shared with two Japanese boys, a German couple and their young daughter. Across the platform a train was being loaded with unfortunate army recruits, and lathi wielding police beat them into already crowded carriages as our train pulled out and the days entertainment began. “Garam masala dooodh!”, “veg cutlet, cheese sandwiiich!”.
Once past the unsavoury slums where the menfolk shamelessly performed their morning defecation rituals trackside, the Konkan Railway branched southward and took us through the rural coastal region of Maharashtra, “ahhh dosa, garam”, “ahhh chikki, chikkeeah”, “tanda orange jooooce!”, “chicken lali pah”, “ice creeeem, chocobar – you want chokobar, sir?”.
We passed innumerable waterways and tiny villages surrounded by rice fields and coconut trees, the further we travelled the more lush the scenery became, and as the day wore on the hotter it became.
It was after 5pm when we reached Thivim. The shell-shocked Canadian from further down the carriage was desperate to find someone else getting down at his stop so we promised to wake our Japanese companion as soon as we pulled in. Takaoshi rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he threw his things together thanking us profusely, but wondering where his friend had disappeared to. He had waved goodbye and we were already pulling out when his friend re-appeared to realise that he had missed his stop, but undeterred he grabbed his bags, walked calmly to the nearest exit and, as we accelerated away performed a daring tuck and roll onto the platform, landing with a loud thud in a cloud of dust!
Our stop was the next one and we had time to make a more graceful exit, leaving Karmali station with a small crowd who dispersed into auto-rickshaws, or waited with us for the next passing bus into Panjim. Mumbai seemed worlds away as we bounced along in a jaunty Kadamba bus past old Portugese churches set in a tropical idyll.
TEN YEARS ON, OUR MEMORIES of Panjim had faded a little, but we found our way to the cluster of small hotels in Sao Tome and eventually found a room at Elite Lodge. We wasted no time hunting down a place to eat – Udipi Hotel did an excellent ‘mackerel masala’ in a thick coconut curry, and we tucked in with relish after a day of greasy snacks.
We stayed in Panjim for a few days, we were still acclimatising to the heat, so strolling along the Mandovi riverfront on Avenida Dom Joao Castro catching the ocean breeze was a good activity, as was wandering the laneways of Fontainhas absorbing the Portugese flavour.
The food was good, and as well as ubiquitous staples, we ate delicious jackfruit and tasty Goan specialities like cashews, Pork vindalho, and Goan samosas filled with spring vegetables and served with a garlic and yoghurt sauce. We even tried feni, a liquor distilled from cashew fruit.
We also made a pleasant morning excursion by bicycle out to Old Goa. The traffic was a bit hair raising with Tatas (HONK!), Marutis (toot!) and Vespas (quack!) screaming past us, but it was a scenic ride and the churches were beautiful. In the Basilica of Bom Jesus we cast our eyes on the mortal remains of Saint Francis Xavier, entombed in a glass and silver casket; and in the Cathedral of Saint Catherine we stole a furtive touch of the ‘Miraculous Cross’ to guard against future ailments. It was Good Friday, and a local choir sang ‘Halelujah’, their sweet voices drifting past the vivid gilded scenes of Catherine’s gruesome beheading. Outside it was hard to imagine heretics being burned at the stake in the square, and the thriving city of several hundred thousand, as it was five hundred years before…
In the evening, back in town, we stood with the crowds in the square beneath the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception listening to the preachers multi-lingual rantings as he stood in a blue pulpit in the middle of the wedding cake facade.
The next day was the outrageous Hindu festival of ‘Holi’, where the men run riot colouring anyone unwise enough to be out on the street with technicoloured gulal powder, and the womenfolk are nowhere to be seen. We also kept a low profile, remaining in our room, eating squirrelled morsels until the midday ceasefire when we cautiously ventured out for more substantial sustenance. Fuschia coloured revellers were still at large, riding in packs around town on motor scooters, everyone else was either unscathed or on their way home to change and rinse out their green and yellow hair, blue moustaches and purple faces. We spent the afternoon mooching around in shady spots watching the scrubbed families enjoy the rest of their holiday.
With ‘Holi’ out of the way, we headed off to our next destination – the beach. We walked down to the bus stand, stopping for a quick breakfast of pav chana masala, and found a bus going to Margao. At the ticket window we, and everybody else (!!) obeyed the sign, ‘Q please’ while also noting that two seats on every bus were reserved for freedom fighters!
On the way out of town a chill ran down my spine as we passed the Goa Medical College, a place that I had once spent several horrific nights in, and with the turn-off to Vasco de Gama Airport behind us we were finally resuming the journey which we had been forced to abandon ten years earlier…
In Margao we changed to a bus headed further down the coast, and enjoyed the seaside scenery to Ankola where we changed buses again. We shared the last twenty kilometre ride with a talkative German and numerous bare-breasted tribal women with flowers in their hair and and swathes of beads around their necks.
GOKARN WAS JUST A SMALL pilgrims village by the sea centred around a Shiva temple. We had a look around before being beckoned into the Shri Laxmi hotel for cheap and comfortable lodging. It was a nice place to spend time. In the mornings as we ate our idli sambar the pilgrims were active making darshan at the Mahabaleshwar temple. They strode purposefully between holy sites dressed in brightly coloured longis with their foreheads streaked with Shivite markings.
Midday saw a change of shift as the morning devotees left to go picnicking and new groups arrived by the Mahindra load, noisily scouting the dharamsalas for accommodation.
In the evenings everyone headed down to the beach where Shiva was believed to have been born from the ear of a cow, to play as the sun set. Bhelpuri wallahs sold snacks, children played cricket, and the pilgrims hitched up their saris and suitings to rollick in the surf. Even the holy cows came, sneaking up behind the other beach-goers and raiding the gobi manchuri stalls.
The sun didn’t set spectacularly, it just kind of fizzled into the haze as it neared the horizon – our cue to head off to our preferred meal venue, Pai Hotel for a ‘veg’ thali, then across the road to Maitreyee Juice Centre for a gadbad…
After a reconnoitre to the beaches south of the village we headed out to Koodlee for a week of total relaxation. An eighty Rupee seaside room at the Ganga Cafe was a good venue for watching the days go by…
We swam, put our feet up, or stretched out on the sand beneath the figs and coconut trees, reading and lazing. The swell of the Arabian Sea ebbed and flowed; cicadas droned in the cashew trees; cows, like the other beach-goers, went about their daily routine – sunbathing, strolling on the beach, paddling in the surf, chewing food scraps. The ganja-wallah combed the beach for customers, openly approaching likely punters, indiscreetly calling out, “You want ganja???”, his hands full of little packages wrapped in newspaper. The feral types spent their days mulling hash and, in between smoking the resultant spliffs, polished up their acts for what could have made a circus show if they had gotten together.
A twenty minute walk over the laterite headland to the north took us into the village for idli sambar, new reading material, and supplies of bananas, grapes and sweet red papaya. Twenty minutes in the opposite direction and we were at Om Beach, and an hour beyond there the beautiful secluded cove of Half Moon, and Paradise Beach which might have been more like paradise without the piles of rubbish and naked baton-throwing ferals.
In the evenings we ate our vegetable thali with crusty fried fish as the ocean lapped beside our table and the house cat mewed for morsels. And we went to sleep with the lullaby of the waves. Every day was perfectly shanti …
Even in the early morning it was hot carrying our much diminished luggage back over the headland to the bus stand in Gokarn. Peacocks cried out from the hills, langurs swung in the trees above us, and in the village young Balchendra served us our idli sambar with a wide grin.
We found a bus to Kumta, and a freshly starched conductor with a flower sticking out of his ear sold us our tickets, “two seats, twenty-six Rupees”. Three little faces peered at us intently from the seat in front during the hour long ride, the offspring of a young man no taller than me.
In Kumta we changed to another bus for Jog Falls, first travelling further down the coast, then inland on National Highway 206 which cut through the jungle climbing the ghats, our drivers cornering ensuring that anyone sneaking forty winks would end up in the aisle.
IT WAS OBVIOUS WHEN WE HAD arrived. A pretty little river trickled over an abyss and a sign announced grandly, ‘THE WORLD FAMOUS JOG FALLS’. We climbed down from the bus at the lookout point to behold a paltry dribble falling a couple of hundred metres into a dark green pool. A hydro-electric dam upstream had put paid to anything more spectacular.
The Tunga Tourist Home took care of our lodging needs, and we had a dosa and milk badam at a nearby dhaba before hiking down into the chasm. It was a dried out version of what nature had intended, but was still a beautiful walk. Though we passed up the opportunity to bathe in the emerald depths of the pools, the waterfall produced a cooling spray and we met others enjoying the same – a group of tourists from Kerala, a colony of bats in a shady crevice, and a troop of red-faced monkeys scoffing figs.
Back up at the lookout point, children prodded by their parents struggled to practice their English with us – until the subject of cricket came up and they miraculously became fluent speakers! And besides the scarlet minivet and coppersmith barbet, we spotted a real prize – a pair of pompador green pigeons!
The next morning at 8 o’clock we sat by the roadside with a very independent ten year old boy waiting for passing transport. It took just one and a half hours to descend back to the coast, and in the town of Honavar we said goodbye to our little friend and changed to a bus which would take us to Udipi, three scenic hours to the south.
The road hugged the Karavali coastline weaving around lush waterways. Our driver was very good at obeying the traffic rules, always ‘horning for side’, ‘waiting for signal’, and not performing any manoeuvres without the authority of the conductors whistle. Of course, the further we travelled, the less particular he became, so we were being thrown around the back of the bus like rag dolls by the time we reached our destination…
DRIPPING WITH PERSPIRATION WE walked aimlessly from Udipi’s bus stand until we noticed a sign pointing the way to the Krishna temple, and soon enough the large wooden chariots of the gods came into view. We hunted around for a simple lodging – Vidya Samudra Chatra rose up next to the 700 year old tank, the front rooms looking towards the city and our room at the back looking out on a coconut and betel plantation . When the drought broke and it finally rained later that afternoon it was the best place to be.
The sacred enclave of the Krishna temple was an atmospheric area to stay in. Inside the principal shrine a constant stream of devotees queued to make darshan with the holy idol housed in an exquisite wooden building with a silver porch. They prayed, prostrated themselves, and even practised their bowling swing, being hurried along by an attendant as a priest chanted from the dark recesses. A man clad in a safari suit was scowled at and expelled after blatantly yelling into his mobile phone as bells rang loudly and outside some miscreant was making off with Dave’s chappals.
Around the enclave were many smaller shrines and stalls selling pooja paraphernalia. It was always busy with tourists and worshippers, we even passed an elephant matter-of-factly making his way from shrine to shrine, rousing the gods with a brass bell and his own trumpet while his mahout prayed.
The evening pooja inside the sanctum was entrancing. A band of bizarre-looking wind instruments played loudly, the temple bells clanged, and priests chanted. Everybody watched with their hands together in prayer, then tiny oil lamps were carefully placed in niches all around the wooden shrine. Outside in the 30 degree cool, we stood by the tank chatting with a local retiree, Chandaraka, who told us that there would be a festival the following evening, so we postponed our plans to leave the next morning and thought about how to spend another day in Udipi…
Mealtimes were no problem in the town which created the dosa – from set dosa (tiny pancakes served with sambar and coconut chutney) to crispy half-metre wide masala dosas which the waiters had to fold to fit through the door to the ‘family room’.
At Shanthi Sagar we had a delicious meal of aloo gobi, keju masala (cashews in a fiery red gravy) and tomato raita, finished off with a very good gadbad.
To pass some of the day we took the bus out to Malpe Beach. We weren’t expecting much, so we weren’t disappointed. Beyond the pretty fishing boat harbour which reeked of decaying fish, was a stretch of sand looking across to Saint Mary’s Island liberally strewn with excrement and a line of bare-arsed villagers dispatching more of the same. Our excursion didn’t take as much time as we had hoped…
In the evening we attended pooja at the temple, then waited to see what would happen next. We met Chandaraka who was happy that we had decided to stay an extra day and proudly explained the programme for the festival as it unfolded around us. The idol was paddled around the tank on a fairy-lit pontoon, then carried in a golden palanquin out to one of the giant chariots. In another chariot was an idol from a minor shrine, and a parade began as the vehicles were lit up with lights and pulled by scores of worshippers all around the sacred enclave.
The caparisoned temple elephant joined in the parade as fire crackers exploded, drums beat, and children danced with two papier mache gigantes. At the halfway point a ceremonial fire was ignited on a lungi, and back at the temple the Krishna icon was returned to the inner sanctum during a “very nice pooja” which we again witnessed. It finished with the idol circling the shrine on it’s palanquin led by a flutist and a drummer making the sweetest music one could imagine. When we emerged the street was deserted and quiet as if nothing had happened…
The festival was to last for a week, paid for by a doctor from Chennai who donated one lakh of Rupees to the temple. But a dearth of daytime activities forced us to move on the next day.
We went to the bus stand early and, armed with a map, solicited suggestions for the best route to take to Belur. A cross-country route through the hills was deemed the best option, and at 8am a bus supposedly going through Mudigere arrived to take us on our way.
It was a nice drive through the forested countryside. We checked our progress on the map and were ejected at Ujire, about halfway to where we wanted to go. We waited just a few minutes before a bus passed by going our way, and the road on to Mudigere was a spectacular climb up Charmady Ghat through jungle and flowering coffee plantations.
We were thrown all around the bus as the conductor prowled the aisle calling out “tickettttsss” and a fellow passenger unselfconsciously dried his underpants on the luggage rack.
From there we switched to another bus for the final leg to Belur, the whole trip taking six hours, and Belur appearing as a hot and dusty disappointment after the lush beauty of the forests which we had passed through…
WE ASKED DIRECTIONS TO THE temple and along the way found a room at Swagath Tourist Home. Belur was an overgrown village with the thousand year old Chennakeshava temple as it’s focal point. The gopura rose impressively from the end of temple road, and after a desperate hunt for some lunch, we went to check it out.
The stone paved courtyard was eye-wateringly hot on bare feet, so we spent much time admiring the Vaishnavite interior, and even stole a glimpse of the principal idol when the red curtain was drawn open for a few fleeting moments. Outside we hotfooted our way around the ornately carved exterior with increasing numbers of local tourists, all out looking their best for a Hindu new year promenade.
We couldn’t find anything more than a curry puff for dinner, and retired early worrying about what might be for breakfast…
But the hotels were all open in the morning, and after a healthy plateful of idli sambar, we hopped on a bus for the short ride to Halebid. There we found the even finer Hoysaleshvara temple set on a rolling lawn with shady mango trees to sit under after a walk to the nearby Jain bastis.
Back in Belur the meal situation improved with a thali at ‘Sri Vishnu Refreshment’, and things got even better when the Indian Coffee House opened it’s doors for an evening meal of uppama and coffee (though the coffee was a shadow of the Ethiopian brew which we feared had spoiled us for all eternity).
The next morning we were on the road again, travelling ninety kilometres south to Sravanbelagola. First a commuter bus took us to Hassan, and we witnessed the art of pushing and shoving in a scrummage from which the slightly tousled winners emerged with the first choice of the seats.
In Hassan it was more difficult to find an onward bus to Channarayapatna than it needed to be, as we were pointed in different directions at every corner of the bus stand by well-meaning conductors.
In ‘CRPatna’ we were attracted to a welcoming ‘MAY I HELP YOU?’ sign at the enquiry office, “What do you want???”, and directed to the Sravanbelagola non-stop bus-stop for the final leg to our destination.
THE VILLAGE WAS SET AMONGST coconut trees beneath a bald granite hill topped with a gigantic statue of the naked Jain god Gomateshvara. Lines of pilgrims made their way up the steep rock face like ants as we wandered away from the bus stand looking for a place to stay. The dharamsala Vidyananda Nilaya allocated us a small apartment, and we settled ourselves for a stay of a few days.
Later that afternoon, once the rock had cooled sufficiently for the bare-footed ascent, we climbed Indragiri for a closer look at the thousand year old colossus of Gomateshvara. As we explored the ancient complex a rain storm swept in across the green fields from the north, darkening the sky and cooling the afternoon with a downpour which we watched from the stone porch of Vadegal temple. Sravanbelagola was a captivatingly beautiful place.
The next morning we decided to go cycling and hired a couple of bicycles from Saleem at the local bike shop. We headed north, cycling through cane fields and coconut plantations along country lanes joining small villages. We were met warmly by the villagers who often stopped us for a chat, or rode along beside us, amusing us with their cricket knowledge – “Ganguli is a bad captain”, “Pakistan is no competition…”. By the time we got back we had learned that the fourth one-dayer between India and Pakistan was on in Ahmedabad, and asked Saleem why he wasn’t watching the game. “It’s on in my home, do you want to watch? Come…”.
He led us down a nearby laneway to his family’s house where his father, Nawab, was strategically positioned cross-legged on the floor in front of the set. He was completely surrounded by bicycle spare parts, wheels stacked up next to the doorway, handlebars, seats, manufacturers boxes piled up in mounds. But space was readily made for us and Nawab was happy to have some company for watching the game.
India batted well in the first innings as Nawab’s wife kindly bought us little cupfuls of chai and snacks, and now and then the shop boy would come to rifle through the spare parts, sending boxes cascading, or disappearing into the attic to emerge with seat covers and mud flaps. We were invited to return after tea for the second innings and an afternoon tiffin of curry and rice as the game turned into a cliff hanger with India being beaten on the last ball by three runs. Nawab shook his head in despair and invited us back for chapatis later in the evening…
The next day we went cycling again, heading off in a completely different direction, and randomly following attractive country lanes which took us through remote villages where the locals were even more surprised to see us. It was a beautiful and relaxing way to spend the morning.
The top of Indragiri’s sister hill, Chandragiri was another wonderful place, and there we enjoyed the magical light of the late afternoon or early morning. We spent some hours wandering alone inside the temple enclosure, and could also sit in solitude on the top-most rock by an engraved holy footprint feeling like the sky would swallow us as it turned the colour of fire, and soothing temple music drifted up from the Bhandari basti below. The basti was an active Jain temple which we had visited earlier, where ‘sky-clad’ Digambaras went about their daily rituals without the material excesses of clothing.
Before we left on our last morning we were up at dawn to climb Indragiri again. There was much activity at the Gomatesvara’s enormous feet – families sat in groups making pooja, carefully moving food offerings around little wooden platforms and reciting from holy books. Others poured blessed water on the feet of the statue and offered it coconuts and bananas.
We signed autographs, shook hands, posed for group photos, featured in video footage, and were interviewed about our impressions of India. At one stage Dave looked like an outfielder surrounded by eager fans waving their autograph books at him!
We managed to escape, fleeing back down the hill past doli-wallahs labouring up under the weight of their ‘too-much-healthy’ customers. We found peace in our favourite meal haunt, Hotel Abishek, where our breakfast idli was served with a warm smile. But just as we were sitting back admiring the view of the hill as we finished our chai, the crowd found us and we fled again, only pausing to buy five Rupees worth of jackfruit from the stall under the bodhi tree next to the ox shoe wallah.
We packed our things together, and at the bus stand jumped on a bus to ‘CRPatna’ just as it was pulling out. There, we hadn’t even reached the ‘MAY I HELP YOU?’ enquiry window when a conductor barked “MYSORE!” at us, and we were swept away again within minutes. It was another two hours on to Mysore along shady avenues through green paddy fields and small towns.
ARRIVING IN THE HUSTLE AND bustle of a big city was quite exciting after so many slow-paced weeks. It was great to be pressing through the crowds eyeing off the tasty treats as we looked around for somewhere to stay.
In the heart of the city on Gandhi Square we took a room at Central Hotel, then just a few paces from our front door, entered the RRR Hotel for some Andhra-style cuisine. The restaurant was packed with patrons, every place was set with a banana leaf, and the curries and rice kept coming until our cheeks were puffed to exhaustion.
After a lunch like that we could do nothing more than find a shady spot to sit down by the Maharaja’s palace and watch the world go by. In amongst the traffic, ox carts bustled with buses, auto-rickshaws and bicycles stacked up to toppling point, a wild procession passed by in celebration of Doctor Ambedkar’s birthday, and we chatted with Attu, a young man from Davangere who was working in Mysore.
That night was a long and uncomfortable one. I realised Central Hotel wasn’t such a good choice as I tossed and turned thinking about what the giant cockroaches were up to in our toilet, and scratching uselessly at the bed bugs which attacked me so voraciously that I was swollen with welts in the morning – Dave slept soundlessly unaffected beside me!
Once I had ingested every anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine medicament we could find, and had moved to the cleaner Rajabhadra Lodge, we continued with our programme, experiencing only minor discomfort!
Inside the palace of Raja Wadiyar we made our way through the sumptuous pillared halls in turquoise and gold, illuminated by high ceilings made of stained glass dancing peacocks and decorated with images of the Hindu pantheon of gods. It was everything that an Indian Maharaja’s palace should be…
We also hiked up the thousand steps to the top of Chamundi Hill for some merit-earning exercise. The walk through the city and the first seven hundred steps was peaceful, until we reached the giant Nandi statue. There we found a shady spot and, wet with perspiration and still swollen with histamine, we apparently made an irresistible photo opportunity to the hordes of local tourists whistle-stopping their way up the hill by bus. We smiled, pressed the flesh, hugged babies, posed here, there, sat, stood, and were generally good sports as the sweat evaporated. The Nandi statue was beautifully adorned with fresh flowers and tilaka paint, and at the small shrine we watched the almost comical prayer ritual. A man pinched his left ear lobe with the fingers of his right hand, and his right lobe with the left fingers, he stood with his legs crossed, squatting up and down, then turned around in circles still holding onto his ear lobes. His wife performed a more discreet abridged version, while we smiled broadly at our next photographer.
At the top of the hill we queued in a cattle run with the masses waiting for darshan with the solid gold Chamundi idol as people energetically smashed coconuts in front of the temple. Young postcard sellers proudly showed off their knowledge of the world with us – “Australia capital, Canberra…”, “France, Paris…”, “England, London…”. We joined the fun quizzing them further, “What about Pakistan?”, “Don’t know, only Europe…”. “New Zealand?”. “Um, um .. Wellington!”. “Bangladesh?”, “No, only Europe…”.
Inside the temple, darshan degenerated into a melee at the end of the cattle run, and there was only chaos before the idol as the pilgrims elbowed one another for a better view, and a woman cleared a space as she jumped up and down in a devotional frenzy.
We walked back down the hill at such a leisurely pace that it took us until the afternoon to reach the city. At the Nandi statue we became public property again, one wide-eyed seven year old from Chennai exclaimed that she was seeing “Barbie doll!” in the flesh!
On Sunday we did the same things as many others did. We slept in, ate idli sambar and coffee for breakfast, then wandered along to Saint Philomena’s Church. The brick and concrete Gothic edifice was dripping with bee hives and filled with singing parishioners. Outside, charitable plates of biryani were being dispensed to the well-dressed, while the bhikaris stood inanely in front of us pointing plaintively to their mouths.
Next we went to the cinema. We checked out the promotional posters wondering whether it would matter that we’d missed the first fifteen minutes, while the security guard pointed us toward the ticket booth swaying his hips and promising “dancing…!”. The film, which we didn’t even know the title of, was produced in Bangalore and featured plenty of ‘dance items’ as well as the story of a love hexagon so complicated that we were relieved to be unable to understand a word of the Kannada dialogue. The guy behind us had obviously seen the flick so many times that he knew all the lines by heart, and the entire audience participated with whistling and cheering during the fight scenes. But it was the fat middle-aged actors wearing toupees who stole the show with their hilarious gesticulating and comedy routines which the crowd loved. In the end there were so many characters playing lead roles we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to piece the story together – maybe that first fifteen minutes WAS crucial!
At RRR Restuarant we jostled for a place to sit with the Sunday diners who devoured their ‘veg meals’ with record speed, taking any vacant table space, not even caring whether they sat together in family groups. Then we settled ourselves in front of a television with a requisite cool drink in a restaurant to watch India get trounced in the final one-day game in New Delhi.
In the evening we turned out with the rest of Mysore’s residents to see the lights on the Maharaja’s palace. It was a spectacle to behold with marching bands, elephants, and a mobile fairground springing up. I’m not sure exactly what we expected, but it was way over the top.
Eating possibilities in a big city are always met with great anticipation, and we enjoyed numerous delicious opportunities. The local speciality, Mysore pak, melted in our mouths, and Indra Cafe also produced very good pista barfi and an unusual chocolate barfi. Not to mention the fine soan papdi we polished off at Bombay Tiffanies.
In a character-filled drinks shop just off Gandhi Square we sat on old theatre seats drinking cool and spicy ginger milk or nimbu soda answering questions about why we were so thin-looking, “I think you are not pukka English!”.
In Shilpashri Restaurant we ate delicious tandoori chicken and palak paneer enjoying ‘Roof Garden Service On The Moonlight’. And in Devaraja market we took in the visual feast of fresh produce arranged like works of art for the shoppers. We were tailed by a young handkerchief seller and invited to eat veg bhath which was being dispensed as prasad by several karma-increasing stallholders in honour of Rama’s birthday.
An excursion to Ranganathittu bird sanctuary was also worthwhile. We leapt off a bus just before Srirangapatnam and walked through the rice fields to a Cauvery River lagoon where we sat for some hours loving the nature. Fish swam in the olive green water at our feet, crocodiles drifted by like sinister logs, monkeys played in the pandanus, flying foxes roosted in the stands of bamboo, storks sent out a cacophony of noise from their rookery, and a procession of herons and cormorants flew across the scene.
We walked on to Srirangapatnam and made darshan with the reclining Vishnu in Sriranganathaswamy temple before heading home.
We left Mysore for Madikeri, saying goodbye to our charming host Sidalingappa, and having one last meal at our favoured stand-by, Satkar Hotel, before heading down to the central bus stand, leaving a scent trail of sandalwood from our fragrant souvenirs.
At the Mangalore platform we found an ultra-delux Leyland, complete with indicative vomit spray down the side, bound for the hills. The conductor gave one last ditch cry for the omni-destination, “Ba da beh dah – ba da beh dah – ba da beh dah…!”, and we were off.
The region of Kodagu rose gently from the Deccan Plateau. Around Kushalnagar was a little slice of Tibet where prayer flags fluttered on hill tops and monks mopped their brows with lightweight maroon robes.
We drove through bamboo forests and plantations of betel and coffee, shaded by tall silky oaks with pepper vines twined up their trunks. It was a very pleasant three hour ride.
AT 1500 METRES, MADIKERI WAS a compact hill station strewn across some slopes with fine views and cool air. Of the lodging options in the bazaar area we took a spacious 180 Rupee room at Sunanda Lodge, and spent the afternoon gathering information and finding our bearings around town.
The next day we were keen to do some walking amid the coffee estates, and a hike to Abbi Falls took us through some really nice scenery fragrant with the smell of coffee blossoms. A Malabar trogan, which we spotted along the way, was far more exciting than the falls themselves which were so strewn with rubbish and crap that we could barely find a place to sit. And we were lucky to hitch a ride back with a nice family from Udipi who were in town for a wedding.
Eating options in Madikeri were not great. We had been looking forward to tasting the local specialities, but anytime we requested a Kodava dish we were met with a shake of the head, and in the evening even a simple thali was hard to come by. But we did find very good chicken biryani at ‘Hotel Ganges Chicken Biryani Centre’, and the pineapple juice was fresh and frothy at the Choice juice stand.
We had a very lazy day up at Raja’s Seat, a viewpoint where we sat under a tree contemplating the view for hours, solving the problems of the world…
And we made up for our sloth the next day on an excursion to Bhagamandala, thirty kilometres away in the mountains. The bus ride took almost two hours through beautiful scenery, and the village of Bhagamandala was a tranquil haven at the confluence of three holy rivers, one of which was imaginary. We sat and watched the pious bathing, then made a pleasant hour and a half hike up to the source of the holy Cauvery River. There the bus pilgrims made pooja with a priest sitting by the holy squirt, surrounded by religious paraphernalia as they were reminded by way of bold signage not to spit, play or swim in the tank.
On the way back down we found the ancient pilgrims path, and our short-cut took us through an Eden of coffee, ginger and jackfruit trees on a stone-walled walkway which buzzed with the sounds of exotic insects. Back in the village we just had time to munch some onion pakoras before a bus which we recognised from Mysore took us back to Madikeri. And then the rain poured down as only it can in the tropics – lucky!!
The next morning we were off. Of the limited choices, Hotel Capitol provided our breakfast, but with only twenty minutes to spare before the next Virajpet bus we didn’t have time to wait out the bad service for coffee with our idli.
It took an hour and a half to cover the scenic thirty kilometres down to Virajpet, an appealing-looking town still within the boundaries of the Kodagu region. There was time for coffee at one of the private bus stand sweets stalls, and it was served South Indian style in the traditional stainless steel thimble with a huge saucer for pouring, frothing and cooling the sweet milky brew.
A bus to Kannur swept us out of town and down through the thick jungle of the Ghats as a busker played suitably dramatic tunes on a lute…
AFTER THREE HOURS WE WERE back down on the coast in Kannur. With our scant information we had been hoping for something more compact, but we were set down in a thriving city without a clue where we were. We stumbled into the nearest ‘meals’ joint for a delicious twelve Rupee feast served on a banana leaf, then thought about what to do…
Dave went on a scouting expedition and somehow sniffed out the city centre and a tourist office, returning triumphantly with a map. The Plaza Tourist Home provided comfortable lodging and more local information from Rafi on the desk, and once we’d cooled off we went out for a second round of re-acclimatising. A super cool chikoo milkshake made from a block of frozen milk was a great start, then we found our way to Payyambalam Beach, a surprisingly clean stretch of the Malabar Coast busy with afternoon pleasure-seekers not afraid of getting their best sarees and ‘suitings’ wet. Like Indian cinema-goers leaving before the last act, everybody vacated the beach in a scramble as the sun melted into a cloud bank on the horizon…
We found our way back through the tangle of streets which made up the thronging market place, stopping to join the crowd around a watermelon vendor. We ate from pink wedges with juice dripping from our elbows and two cows nudging our bellies in anticipation of the scraps.
The next day was Sunday and we again decided to do what the locals were doing. On the beach hundreds of lads were playing football, and as we strolled by many of them paused to greet Dave with a polite “good morning sir” as he smiled and waved prime-ministerially. We strolled on through the cantonment, a colonial seaside suburb full of elegant houses with mongooses playing in the gardens and wide verandahs ideal for reading the Sunday paper on.
For lunch we stuffed ourselves with a thali that included excellent tuna fish curry, and siestaed for the rest of the afternoon, only venturing out into the heat for a chikoo shake before the 6pm show at the Kavitha cinema…
We thought we might see the Hindi film, but when the friendly security guard learned this his eyes lit up and he responded, “ahh sexy film!”. The posters didn’t look at all provocative by Western standards, but a glance across at the male-only assembly milling by the ’70mm’ ticket booth had us shuffling across to line up at the ‘Little Kavitha’ booth instead. Seats in the ‘jasmine circle’ filled fast, and we sat wading through the first hour of the plot as people continued to cram in around us, inelegantly climbing over seats in sarees, and entire families moving repeatedly around in the theatre in search of the best vantage. By the third hour everyone had settled down, babies had gone to sleep despite the din, phones had stopped ringing, and we had the plot sussed – it was a movie in a movie with the lead actor (fat and middle-aged) also playing the script writer and director. He won the heart of the lead actress (young and beautiful), while the villain (superstar Saroj Kumar) repented his wrongs after punishment was duly and cleverly meted out to him, and there were several song and dance scenes completely unrelated to the rest of the story, but essential for a balanced film. It was produced in Chennai in tongue-twisting Malayalam which was the local language firing all around us as well as in Dolby.
Outside, the empty nighttime streets soon came alive as the cinemas emptied simultaneously, and rickshaws and pedestrians filtered away through the herds of cows that took over the city at night on foraging sorties.
Our quest to glimpse a theyyam ceremony led us to the village of Parassinikadavu, a twenty kilometre bus ride away to an idyllic spot on the banks of the Valapatanam River where we found the Madapura temple. The small ornate shrine was surrounded by a busy complex, active with worshippers, mess hall diners, and more than it’s share of stray dogs.
Before long, loud drumming from within attracted everyone to the shrine, and we crowded in to see a priest being fantastically dressed before the altar. A silver cobra headdress was decorated with fresh flowers, his face and torso were painted with thick pastes of extraordinary colour, and around his waist was a decorated belt which sat like a platform on his hips. Heavy bells on his ankles accompanied the loud drumbeats of six musicians as he pranced around the shrine with a lethal-looking sword, assisted by another priest who performed various rituals with fire, water and grain – all with his eyes closed. Numerous bronze idols of dogs sat by the shrine, and during the ceremony several mongrels came wandering through unhindered, to scavenge from the offerings as they were being made!
This bizarre spectacle lasted an hour before the priest was mobbed by devotees whom he blessed with a strange little tilt of the head, as if he were about to offer a kiss!
Back in town we sealed the day with a frozen mango milkshake at ‘Farha Hot and Cool’, then watched the sunset from the lawn of a seaside villa which we’d been invited to visit earlier in the day by Cheryl, a retired American doctor who had been living in Bylakuppe…
The next morning we drifted back to the bus stand for our onward journey. A bus to Kozhikode set our wheels in motion for the first two and a half hours as we followed a beautiful coastal route at top speed past gorgeous backwaters bursting their banks with coconut palms.
From Kozhikode a government bus took us for the next three hours to Trissur, a roller coaster ride through the hills with a madman behind the wheel, past innumerous giant billboards advertising fine silk sarees and gold…
WITHOUT A MAP OF THIS EVEN bigger city, we wandered out of the bus stand asking the most intelligent-looking bystanders the way to the city centre. It seemed that every hotel along the way was full, and we had to settle for Jaya Lodgings with it’s vinyl mattresses and newspaper-sized peep holes. But it was a friendly place, and near to ‘The Round’, which was our only landmark for finding things.
A visit to the tourist office was far more trouble than it was worth, gaining information was like pulling teeth. We asked for a map of town, no they didn’t have one of those. We asked what places we might visit, the Kalamandalam was mentioned, “It’s very nice, you can see kathakali dance training…”. Okay, bus details were obtained. After more probing it was recommended that we visit Irunjalakuda, “There is a big festival there for twelve days…”. Great, bus details (albeit inaccurate ones) were obtained.
So the next day we set off to Cheruthuruthy. We waited for an hour and a half for a bus at the government bus stand, then rode for over an hour to the Kalamandalam Institute to find that the students were all on three months vacation…
We were back in time to consider another side trip that afternoon to Irunjalakuda. We found a programme in the newspaper, and decided to head off to check out the evenings festivities. We were there by 3 o’clock, and spent several hours wandering around the temple complex getting excited about the upcoming events. Ten tuskers moved purposefully around the compound preparing for their evenings entertainment work – they collected palm leaves, and their mahouts lovingly fed them football-sized balls of rice from silver buckets. Families sat watching some live entertainment, a tabla ensemble was replaced with traditional temple music sung by a female vocalist. The outside of the temple itself was covered in oil lamps which were being painstakingly filled by a squad of workers clad in orange lungis. And a lone man with a wheelbarrow plodded ceaselessly back and forth across the scene set at the never ending task of removing the elephant poo…
Many people approached us, proudly telling us about the programme, and which events in particular we shouldn’t miss. It sounded great and we decided that we should take a room in a local lodge for the remaining four days of the festival…
But at 6 o’clock we were surprised by a security guard who told us not-so-politely that we non-Hindus were not welcome and should leave immediately! We were shocked, and on our way out asked at the information booth at the entrance to the temple if this was really the case. A panel of experts duly mulled over the question and regretfully decided that technically it was correct that we shouldn’t be allowed even in the outer compound to join in the fun. We were so disappointed that one individual should enforce such a small-minded idea, which the rest of the populace were even unaware of. We collected our shoes and left on the next bus back to Trissur amazed at what a bad day we’d had.
Willing to give Trissur a last chance to redeem itself, and in need of a rest day, we stayed on the next day and found our way to the State Art Museum. Not only was the museum a disappointment, but it was reached through a woeful zoo full of hapless animals being fed and teased by the thoughtless masses who were warned on prominent signs of the penalties for feeding and teasing the animals. The more fortunate specimens were taxidermied inside a second museum building which also housed the skeleton of ‘Ranganatha’, Kerala’s largest ever elephant, and a homosapien…
At least we had another great lunch at Bharath Hotel, which put on delicious ‘vegetarian meals’ for those with the stamina to fight it out for a place to sit. And we couldn’t resist our latest discovery – chikoo and chololate milkshakes just around the corner from home on Round South.
The next morning we treated ourselves to a breakfast of poori bhaji at Hotel Dwaraka on our way to the bus stand. We still hadn’t figured out how to pronounce ‘Ernakulam’, but we managed to find a bus and took our pronunciation cue from the conductor who spruiked at the back door like a turkey gobbling.
AFTER TWO HOURS WE WERE in the city of Kochi, a metropolis sprawling over a series of peninsulas and islands. For convenience we decided to stay in Ernakulam for the night, and after settling ourselves in a charmingly rustic room at Basoto Lodge on Press Club Road, we went out to explore.
We walked the length of MG Road, stopping with the pretence of browsing in the air-conditioned shops along the way. Though I did buy a cute pencil case, and we had an earthy Keralan thali of putni red rice with coconut curries of plantain and taro and delicious little salted chillies, all for only ten Rupees.
A trip to the movies was becoming habitual for us, and on Saturday night we found our way to the Mymoon Cinema for our weekly dose. We chose the film with plenty of patronage in the ladies queue, and found good seats in the ‘Lulu Circle’ to watch a three hour feature set in the Nilgiri Hills about two psychos falling in love. The song and dance scenes were a bit tame, especially with granny dying at the close of a tap dance number, but the Himalayan dance sequence featuring two yaks was easier to imagine with the comfort of air-conditioning.
But the pastures were definitely greener (and cooler) across the waters in Fort Cochin, and after a couple of nights sweating in Ernakulam with only the ‘possibility of thundery development’ to cool things down from the nightly minimums of 28 degrees, we hopped on a ferry to move ourselves to the old colonial township by the sea.
Fort Cochin was beautiful, we found a fabulous room with a balcony shaded by an enormous tree at Adam’s Old Inn, “for perfect stay”, and finding activities to pass the time was a pleasure. Our intended stay of two or three days stretched into a week before we knew it.
We spent much time sitting along the shady seawall promenade, chatting with the friendly locals, watching dolphins frolic and the fishermen deftly manipulating their huge mantis-like fishing frames as if time had stood still for five hundred years.
We strolled through the streets checking out the melange of architecture – the Church of Saint Francis was built by the Portugese and once housed the remains of Vasco de Gama; the palace in Mattanchery was rebuilt by the Dutch and contained breathtakingly beautiful Ramayana frescoes. Just around the corner in Jew Town, the aromas of tea and ginger issued from the waterside go-downs, and we visited the exquisite fifteenth century synagogue in between browsing the curio and antique shops.
In the meantime, our taste buds were getting to know and love Keralan cuisine. Buffalo biryani with onion raita and mango pickle, sweetened crushed watermelon served in tall glasses, puttu (rice noodles) and anise-flavoured potato curry for breakfast, chilled mango pulp topped with ice cream and cashews…
We also went to see an informal Kathakali performance in a makeshift theatre on the seafront. Oil lamps lit the stage and waves lapped beside the audience as we were treated to an insightful evening which came from the hearts of the actors, drummers and vocalist. It took longer for Jayanthan, son of the King of Heaven, to put on his make-up than it did for him to mime out his role, and although he looked fantastic, the actor who played Lalitha, the demon disguised as a damsel, stole the show with his fluttering eyes…
One day we took a bus out to Tripunithura to see the Hill Palace of the Raja’s of Cochin. We got off the bus in town naively looking around for the royal grounds which we eventually found four kilometres away! The palace was crumbling somewhat, but I could have happily lived there, and we sat in the gardens for hours. It was very pukka colonial.
On another day we hired bicycles and took the ferry across to Vypeen Island for some gentle exercise. It was a nice ride through the villages to Vypeen lighthouse, and the adjacent beach had a lone casuarina on the sand for us to sit under.
Just as our plans to leave Kochi were gathering force, we paid a visit to the tourist officer who told us about a temple festival beginning that very night in a nearby suburb. It was just a short bus ride to the Rameshwaram Mahadeva temple where we arrived in the early evening to a carnival-like atmosphere. We sat on the lawn in the outer compound in front of an open-air stage in anticipation of a Kathakali performance which the actors were busy preparing for in an annex behind. The cacophony of noise which heralded the start of the play was amplified disproportionately to hold the attention of an audience distracted by myriad other happenings in the compound. Children ran around playing, priests circled the shrine in an elaborate evening pooja, and a caparisoned elephant was led around the compound by an inexhaustible band of percussionists and a flaming trident. We, in turn, distracted the younger members of the production who were preparing for their stage debut. On the stage fifteen actors were led by two flamboyantly dressed Lord Krishnas, and included nine boys and a newborn baby returned to a hirsute old man and his improbably fat and unattractive wife by the god who had taken them in death. The story was screamed into Dave’s ear by his neighbour Kumar over the din of the rival percussion bands, which somehow didn’t disturb the baby who woke to find himself on stage in the arms of a green-faced monster, whose make-up detail even included the flower seed to make the whites of his eyes blood red. Holding the baby, he danced wildly to the audible gasps of the crowd.
It was an overcast morning, after the broken promise of a rain storm the previous evening, when we left Kochi. Curly-haired Aslam smiled goodbye through paan stained teeth, and we walked down to the pier for the 7am ferry to Ernakulam.
Out of the chaos of the city we emerged on a bus bound for Munnar, and after an hour careering across the lowlands, and another over the pits repairing a flat tyre, we began climbing the Western Ghats. Past rubber plantations and waterfalls we began to notice the strange sensation of coolness in the air, and by the time we were driving through the tea gardens near our destination, it was almost cold!
MUNNAR, AT 1800 METRES, WAS a dishevelled market town, and we stayed right in the shock of the bazaar at Krishna Lodge where the fan was mysterious in it’s absence, and we actually needed hot water for our daily sluice! We were literally up in the clouds, and a torrential rain storm saw us napping in our room for the afternoon, and after a dinner of tomato uttapam and sambar we snuggled under a blanket for the night!
The next morning we headed into the hills, walking up through the Nullatanni Estate for several hours marvelling at the beauty of the landscape. Tea bushes clung to the sensuously rounded hillsides with wonderful mountain vistas beyond, and the rhythmic click-clacking of the tea pluckers as they laughed and chattered away amidst the bushes.
Eravikulam National Park made an interesting mornings outing. Just ten kilometres out of town, we took a bus past small tea factories scenting the air with freshly fermented leaves to the Rajamalai turn-off, and walked through the plantations up toward the Anamudi massif which towered impressively above. At 2000 metres, the high slopes were home to the endangered Nilgiri tahr, and we had hoped to climb to the summit but that was forbidden, so we had to be satisfied standing at the park boundary looking longingly toward the nature.
A sign at the ticket office where we were slugged 50 Rupees, warned punters that “THIS IS THE HABITAT OF WILD DENIZENS. SEEING ANIMALS IS A MATTER OF CHANCE.”, but at least we weren’t disappointed on that front. The tahr were grazing everywhere on the montane slopes and were completely unafraid of the tourists who were beginning to trickle in. We watched in dismay as one particular group of nature-lovers crash tackled a defenceless creature in the name of good fun, and although the park wardens shouted at them as the vacuous fools they were, they were obviously well used to witnessing that kind of behaviour, which was explained to us simply with, “they are from Tamil Nadu…”.
Walking back we were amazed at the numbers of tourists streaming in. Jeep loads of honking and yahooing rubbish-throwers who universally paused along the way for photo shoots of themselves dancing through the tea bushes filmi-style.
That afternoon we sat on the steps of the church in town eyeing off a potentially fine hike to the south, zig-zagging up through tea gardens to a magnificent ridge top. So the next morning we fortified ourselves with a big breakfast of pongal and set off with our lips still stinging from the pepper in our masala chai.
It took some hours to find our way through the sholas and pekoe tips of the beautiful Chokanad Estate, and we reached the narrow ridge of the mountain top just as the mists began rolling in. Walking along the grassy spine with the clouds swirling over us was fantastic, but our view of the summit was eventually obscured and we retreated in the nick of time, arriving back home just minutes before the rain came pouring down.
As the days went by the tomato uttapam at Lakshmi Bhavan got even better with the addition of onion and roasted chilli sauce, and at lunchtime their excellent banana leaf meals were served with ever-increasing enthusiasm, especially once we crossed the waiters palm with a couple of Russian Kopeks at his request for “your country coin?“.
In the market, grapes, roseapples and mangoes were particularly good. We also ate fresh scrubbed carrots sold along the roadside, and locally made cashew chocolate.
Our breakfast idli on the morning that we left were freshly steamed, and put us in good stead for the day. We received conflicting opinions about where and when we could find a bus to Kumily, but one swept into the least likely stand at the latest quoted time with a conductor who spoke the Queen’s English, “this bus will depart at 9 o’clock sir“.
It was one hundred scenic kilometres through the Cardamom Hills to Kumily, the road winding precipitously through the clouds at Lockhardts Gap, and past lush forests carpeted with cardamom plants as our driver cornered the vehicle like a menace, honking in tune with his favourite pop masala cassette. It took five hours to cover the distance.
IN KUMILY WE BADE FAREWELL to the eloquent conductor, shook off the touts, and set off to find a room, walking towards Thekkady and the Periyar Tiger Reserve. We stayed in the Coffee Inn’s ‘wild huts’, where our thatch bungalow was hidden in a shady garden, at the end of which was a treehouse overlooking the sanctuary behind the back fence. From the treehouse we could comfortably sit and watch the wildlife – a black hooded oriole, a watercock, Lotun’s sunbird, plum headed and Malabar parakeets, and a cinnamon bittern were all new sightings for us. And at different times Nilgiri langurs crashed through the bamboo groves, sambar and barking deer cautiously crossed the clearing, and wild boar chased each other through the scrub. The background noise to this could have been the cicadas and frogs, but they were drowned out by the fire crackers and music coming from the temple inside the park gates. This mela combined with a visit to the national parks office, didn’t entice us to enter the tiger reserve at all, instead we relaxed in our garden and made a nice walk up the hill on the border of the park.
We found our way through the spice gardens, protected from wild animals by electric fences to the top of the hill which we’d spied from the treehouse, and subsequently followed a track along a ridgeline through the jungle. Besides big cat and elephant spore, we spotted a group of Malabar giant squirrels, some vernal hanging parrots and a flock of crimson fronted barbets.
The next day we again wandered with trepidation toward the periphery of town, but were warned away from a suitably attractive forest trail by a concerned villager. We returned to our treehouse instead, and had a wonderfully relaxing day with our library of books and the wildlife regulars.
We, of course, ventured out for culinary sustenance. Potato and tomato curry with porota and coffee laced with cinnamon and cardamom for breakfast. For lunch banana leaf ‘meals’ with red rice, avial, herbed buttermilk, and countless other delicacies served by the silver bucketload. Our local eating skills were sometimes recognised by the wait staff and other diners as we smashed our pappadams and called for more sambar, one poor chap sitting opposite Dave paid the price for his own inattentiveness when his rasam (fire water) poured from his banana leaf into his lap and everyone stifled a grin….
During that last day the load speakers strung along the street by the temple were mercifully removed and on our final evening the frogs prevailed, and the forest clearing was lit by distant lightning and fire-flies.
IN THE MORNING WE WERE off, tumbling down through the coffee and spice gardens, then dropping back to the coast on a spectacular white-knuckle ride at the hands of a KSRTC bus driver who thought himself immortal. But we made it safely to Kottayam in just over three hours, and then spent so long trudging around looking for a vacant room that we had to have a meal break along the way. A thali featuring coconut curries galore and a delicious little lentil sweet sustained us for the rest of the day…
We ended up in Aravind Guesthouse back near the bus stand, and went off to the cinema next door to escape the heat of the afternoon. The movie, filmed in a hospital in the United States about a suicidal young man who learns that he has incurable brain cancer, was pretty depressing – as verified by the cat-calling in the stalls, and the small child who screamed until he was taken outside. But amid the melodramatic misery they still managed a few song and dance items. We ate delectable gajar halva and ras malai before retiring.
We were up bright an early to catch the 7 o’clock ferry to Alappuzha which left punctually, gliding off down a canal rimmed by pink water lilies and shaded by jackfruit and mango trees. We idled along collecting passengers as pedestrian drawbridges were raised and lowered to let us pass by, and villagers went about their daily routines. The boat travelled at about ten kilometres per hour, so it took two and a half hours to reach our destination across Lake Vembanad, by which time we were so relaxed we were almost comatose.
IN ALAPPUZHA WE DITHERED OVER our immediate future. Nobody was willing to surrender ferry information without excruciating cross-examination. While there were tourist boats around, it was in no-ones interest to give public ferry details freely, but after much coaxing we triumphed! We found a place to stay at Kartika Tourist Home, and filled in the day sipping beverages at the Indian Coffee House as well as sitting by the lakeside chatting with a couple of bright ten year olds – until one of them looked in horror over our heads and stammered, “Joshi’s mother!“. She smiled sweetly at us before inflicting a pinch on young Joshi as he was escorted home…
To enjoy some more of the Kuttanad we took an early morning ferry to Nedumudi the next day. It was beautiful on the water, again gliding along the canals with only the chugging sound of the engine and the ‘ding-ding’ of the engineers bell to break the silence.
We stopped every few hundred metres to collect and set down passengers, and so it took a couple of hours to reach the village of Nedumudi where we went for a walk amid the palm groves and houses built tenuously on spits of land between the hyacinth-choked waterways. Life itself had a languid air, and even the men working from their kettuvallam boats, collecting cockles and preparing earthen banks to protect against the upcoming monsoon, seemed to do so effortlessly.
We returned to Alappuzha for a long siesta bookended by a lunchtime thali feast, and a delicious ‘Shajah shake‘, got after braving a street rally of thousands of unionists yelling slogans and waving their fists in the air. “Politiburo!“, someone called to us in explanation – we hadn’t seen so many Communists in all of Russia!
Still deciding what was to be our destination, we headed to the bus stand the next morning and emerged out of the confusion on a bus for Thiruvananthapuram. The roadside distance markers choked on this word, although everyone just called it ‘Trivandrum’…
WE WERE THERE IN FOUR hours, fighting our way like startled rabbits out of the bus stand as speeding vehicles thundered around us. Heading along Aristo Road, we found lodging at Sajin Guesthouse then went out to explore – culturally and culinarily.
We roamed the length of MG Road, scurrying from the traffic, and melting in the heat between juice, shake and lemon soda stops. And my gentle questioning would not reveal what was actually in a ‘Shajah shake’ – “It is a secret, nobody dares to ask…“. Hmmm.
At the northern end of the city the public botanical gardens contained several museums which held our interest for an afternoon. To the south, the Fort area was also nice for a wander. Although we were excluded from appreciating the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple which was the focus of activity, we could stroll around the tank and watch some athletic coconut smashing at an outlying shrine. Young men showed off their strength, women threw matter-of-factly, all waved the coconuts around their heads before letting rip, and a newly wed couple smiled shyly at each other – as strangers do…
As a day trip we took a bus to Thukalai to visit the three hundred year old Padmanabhapuram Palace, an exotic piece of architecture befitting someone titled The Maharaja of Travancore. It sat in the shadow of a mist shrouded mountain, and was built with the finest features of carved mahogany, stained mica window inserts, polished floors of jaggery and burnt coconut, courtyards, trapdoors and secret passageways.
We also found a good afternoons entertainment at the Shree Kumar cinema on Central Station Road. ‘Kochi Rajavu’ played to a full house on an impressively large screen, and with very loud surround sound. We sat with the cheering crowd in the stalls as the story of a law student cum rickshaw wallah unfolded before us with plenty of blood-drenched fighting scenes, teary-eyed love scenes, side-splitting comedy, high-speed vehicle chase action, and musical numbers erupting at any given moment – the best of them particularly well-choreographed and featuring hundreds of singing and dancing rickshaw drivers. Load-shedding meant that periodically the cinema was plunged into darkness, to the whooping excitement of those around us. A generator restored the picture but without the air-conditioning all squirmed uncomfortably until the next blackout produced another cheer. In the end the cherub-faced hero (a murderer just out of jail) not only prevailed over the evil loan shark, but married his well-rounded daughter as well. No-one felt compelled to stay for the last scene, so by the time the lights came on the theatre was already half empty…
IN NEED OF A SEA CHANGE, we left Trivandrum after four days for Varkala, fifty kilometres back up the coast. The papers had reported high seas and we arrived to find a pounding surf and very few tourists in an off-season shell.
Papanasam Beach was a nice stretch of sand beneath towering laterite cliffs where the tourist enclave was perched, a tangle of coconut palms, colourful sign boards and thatched huts. We had a good prowl around before taking our pick of the cliff side rooms. For 100 Rupees we had spacious lodgings above a family house called ‘Chothi’, with a fine view to the blue horizon and a two day old Ambassador being proudly polished in the driveway.
Our objective, to witness the onset of the monsoon, took two and a half weeks to realise, so we kicked back and waited, keeping our eyes on the southwest sky….
In the mornings we would scramble down and walk along the white sand past the regular games of cricket to Tomy’s, a bamboo shack where we ate fresh porota for breakfast. At this time of day the beach was a hive of activity, the fishermen were hauling in their bounty caught from sturdy little rafts crafted from three logs (these fish morsels would later be part of our lunch, rubbed with turmeric then fried and served with rice and four vegetable curries at Sathram Restaurant down near the temple). Further along pandits sat under flimsy palm frond shades offering elaborate poojas to families who earnestly paraded in circles around carefully arranged banana leaves and flower petals which were later offered to the sea.
During the day lifeguards maintained an orderly beach, in between body-surfing and volleyball commitments. The screeching of their whistles was a ubiquitous sound as they banished any groups of Indian swimmers away from the few who made up the foreign contingent, and ensured that the ladies swimming in sarees didn’t drown.
The local dogs also patrolled looking for any edible flotsom, and relaxed on sarongs thoughtfully provided by the fair-skinned beach-goers whom they befriended.
It was a sloppy surf for swimming, but the water was warm, and the red cliffs, home to scarpering mongooses, made an excellent backdrop.
The days melted into the evenings as we sat on the beach watching the sunset before retiring to our balcony to enjoy the cool breeze and the lights of fishing boats bobbing on the horizon under a night sky which always flickered with lightening.
Every few days we interrupted our routine with a shopping sortie into Varkala town for essentials like pineapples, mangoes, honey and date ladoos and Shajah shakes.
Then there were other minor distractions like a walk along the rugged coastline toward Kollam, and an unsolicited charlatan named Shankar who read Dave’s ‘mercury’ face and thoughtfully traced lines on our palms to come up with our future prospects. I shall be a very nervous 82 year old…
There was the yogi who performed asanas on the sand worthy of the fabled rubber man, and a bizarre incident which we witnessed from the safe distance of our balcony between the lifeguards and a foreigner who was whistled from the water. The ensuing fist fight which featured several blows with a boogie-board attracted much interest from the grandstand of the clifftop.
As the monsoon approached, the occasional rain squall disrupted activities as the locals prepared for the onset. Thatched huts were dismantled and removed (one afternoon our view of the beach improved exponentially!) and businesses packed up and left for the season. The new Ambassador was carefully sheltered for the onslaught.
The monsoon finally broke at 5pm on Sunday the fifth of June. We lingered at the top of the stairs to the beach with our red-collared dog, the boogie-boarder bemoaning to us the methods of the lifeguards, as dark clouds approached and soon dumped their wet load. We scurried for cover in a defunct eatery, sheltering until the shower passed with a pair of amiable doctors from Kollam who had also come to see the rain…
It rained all night and the next morning, but far from the beach being deserted, it was alive with devotees making pooja under a sea of black umbrellas. The moon was new, and hundreds were there on the beach praying for their deceased parents. Extra priests were in attendance, and waves washed across the sand creating untold hazards for the pilgrims, and a headache for the furiously whistling lifeguards.
The day passed in a drizzle, but we were back on the beach that evening to watch the sun set over an angry sea. A homeopathic doctor from Trissur named Ragoo regaled us with stories of his spiritual exploits, from the arms of Ammaji (the hugging mama) and Sai Baba, to his psychedelic dreams and imaginings of an avatar from Sirius, the dog star who had once manifested as an aboriginal priest in Monkey Mia…
On the morning we left we walked along the beach under a clear blue sky to breakfast with our friends at Sathram Restaurant, who bid us a very fond farewell. Kumar even tucked us onto a bus, giving strict instructions to the driver to take care of us.
It was raining by the time we reached Atingal, and it drizzled on and off for the next few hours as we headed south, smoothly changing buses three times, to eventually end up at the southern extreme of the country in the state of Tamil Nadu. The familiar faces of Dilip and Mohan Lal disappeared from the movie posters splashed around the towns which we passed through, replaced by their Tamil superstar counterparts. The bluffs which were the last throes of the Western Ghats enhanced the scenery of lily ponds, paddy fields and coconut palms stretching as far as the eye could see.
WE HAD ARRIVED IN KANIYAKUMARI by 2 o’clock and found a room with a view at Tri Sea Hotel, then a late lunch at Hotel Saravana before a stroll to the end of Cape Cormorin…
A carnival atmosphere prevailed around the Kumari Amman temple, where Dave solved the legend of the famously bright nose stud worn by the namesake deity (undisguised LED globe). Outside one could have ones fortune told by parrots, ladies with wooden sticks, or palmists with magnifying glasses. One could also buy any manner of cheap souvenir, from shell art to plasticware, the stalls boasting the cheapness of their tat which was being snavelled up by tourists from all over the country.
We sat at the very tip of India, a strong wind whipped the sea into a foaming cauldron washing mercilessly over the ancient bathing ghats which fearless pilgrims risked their well-being to use. Off shore, a giant statue of Thiruvalluva loomed from a rocky islet, and all of these elements combined to make a popular place to watch the sun set. We took our place, and were soon joined by a talented sunglass salesman and a mute woman named Keetha who described to us succinctly the coming of the tsunami to the place where we sat…
Later, after some idly and a mango juice we sat on the balcony of our rooftop room as the beam from the adjacent lighthouse swept over us, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
Kaniyakumari wasn’t on the way to anywhere, so the next morning we retraced our route back to Nagercoil, and there changed to a bus bound for Madurai. The ‘POINT TO POINT’ express was relatively luxurious with coach seats and glass in the windows, and the 240 kilometre ride in the company of a dozen rifle-toting policemen was uneventful. It took six hours to cover the distance, and the city of Madurai appeared out of the flatness of the acacia scrubland which we drove through, the tall gopurams of it’s ancient temple visible for miles around.
A CITY BUS TOOK US FROM the bus stand into the centre, the chaotic epitome of an Indian city. The streets were choked with people, cycle-rickshaws, cows and rubbish. The smells which assaulted us were a wondrous masala of incense, spice, cow dung and food, everywhere food, spilling out of stalls and eateries, being consumed with lip-smacking urgency…
Dripping with the heat we found a room at Subham Lodge, okay for a night after we spacked up all the spy holes, but we found alternative lodging the next day. The honeymoon suite, decorated in shades of green and pink, on the top floor of Santosh Lodge was much more salubrious.
Exploring the city was really about absorbing the atmosphere of it’s great Sree Meenakshi temple – one of the largest in India. Behind it’s fortress-like walls, entered through fifty metre tall gopurams decorated with a riot of brightly coloured iconology, was a devotional fantasy world where everything seemed surreal.
On the steps of the Pottamarai tank we sat for hours, giggling with the small children who were thrust in our direction, and watching the numerous wedding groups passing through. The timid brides looked morbid, some even reduced to tears, the tentative grooms appearing anything from fearful to ecstatic.
In other parts of the complex temple elephants earned their keep by donging pilgrims on the head with their trunks for a Rupee. In the darkness of the inner courtyard the faithful slung butter balls at stone statues of dancing deities, while on the floor women sat creating small and beautiful rangolis with powders, flower petals and lime skin oil lamps.
One morning we saw a procession of penitents circumambulate the temple with their cheeks pierced with giant skewers. And one evening a man preparing a motorcycle pooja captured our attention. He was beneath one of the eastern gopuras with a sparkling new TVS as, barefooted, he began making purchases from the nearby pooja stalls. First he arranged a flower garland around the handlebars, then he began anointing with yellow tilak powder particular points on the bike, for which his wife helpfully consulted. He then carefully aligned his pride and joy with the entrance to the shrine as police guards looked on with great amusement – nobody else paid the slightest attention to him, but people began stopping to wonder what it was that we were looking at. The man made more purchases and returned with a coconut topped with a dollop of flaming camphor, which he offered to Meenakshi and then the bike, before energetically smashing it under the great gateway and preparing for the final crucial ritual. He handed the keys to one of the policemen who obligingly kick-started the engine, he mounted and carefully squashed two limes beneath the wheels as he rolled away to collect his shoes. “This is what we do in India – it is the rules…”, explained some boys on holiday from Ahmedabad who had stopped to watch with us.
Another more simple act which arrested my attention was deep inside the temple. A young mother carrying her newborn baby needed to free her arms to pay obeisance to the deity. Carefully she laid the baby on the ancient stone floor at her feet and prayed as though she were offering the child to her god. It was the moment which moved me the most inside the five century old temple.
Outside, in the streets surrounding the complex, the rhythm of life was also captivating. Gingerly we side-stepped cow hazards and motorcycles as cycle-rickshaw wallahs offered to take us to a range of likely destinations including other planets, “Sir, do you want spliff, marijuana – Manaaali?“.
The fresh produce market was a sensory overload from squelching through the frenzy of the flower market juggling our fruit purchases, to the miasma of the vegetable section where a thick carpet of mint and curry leaves were crushed underfoot releasing a fabulous aroma.
Further afield, across the dry Vaigai River in the Gandhi museum we beheld the original blood-stained dhoti which the Mahatma was wearing at the time of his assassination.
Well due for some cinema magic, we asked Shankar at our hotel desk if he had any recommendations, and he replied enthusiastically joined by one of the roomboys. Following his concise directions, and checking along the way with a string of very responsive bystanders, we found the Amirtham Cinema down a gritty backstreet. After checking the ‘timings’ with the office we waited just a few minutes before the ticket seller kindly came to us with the ticket book before he faced the crowds shoving each other in the cattle runs.
Inside the audience hooted and whistled with delight as Rajini burst onto the screen like genuine superstar material. He fought like Jackie Chan, danced like John Travolta, and sang like Elvis. He had the charisma of Mohan Lal and the smouldering sex appeal of James Bond. The Tamil film was a big budget block buster with cult potential – we were almost certainly the only punters in the cinema who hadn’t seen it before. Loud cheering from the stalls preempted the song and dance items which were frequent and flamboyant, despite the fact that ‘Chandramukhi’ was essentially a horror film set in a house haunted by the spirit of a beautiful woman who came to possess the young mistress, Ganga. The fright scenes were about as scary as Monty Python. Of course we were all led to believe that the hard-faced mother in law was somehow responsible for the evil-doings, but our hero stepped in with the help of a pandit and chakra to exorcise the demon and win the heart of doe-eyed Durga. It was a movie that demanded that you love it, and the proletariat obliged very loudly to compete with the full volume DTS.
Despite the abundance of tempting foods, the oppressive heat drove us to mostly liquid nourishment, from the local speciality of an alarmingly fluorescent ‘fruit mix’ to delicious coffee ‘pulled’ to a cool temperature with great dexterity by mustachioed experts.
At Sri Sabarees we could also choose from a range of delicious breakfast options, served with excellent mint and tomato chutnies. And we couldn’t go past the meals hall at the New College House where we took our places in the long rows of tables, following the banana leaf etiquette to enjoy the mouthwatering curries ladled out with big smiles.
Fruits were surprisingly abundant and cheap. The local variety of mango was exceptionally delicious, and cost only 10 Rupees for five huge fruits!
During our four day stay in Madurai the temperature was increasing and our tolerance diminishing. Our beds were burning and the water coming out of the bathroom tap was too hot to touch! Kodaikenal wasn’t that far out of our way and, lured by the promise of temperatures that were twenty degrees lower than Madurai’s, we made that our next destination…
It was two hours across the plains to the foot of the Palani Hills which rose abruptly out of the flatness. Our overcrowded bus complained noisily as it suffered up the inclines from an altitude of zero to two thousand metres in just forty kilometres, a two and a half hour mechanical endurance, with the air getting soothingly fresher as we climbed.
ON ARRIVAL KODAIKENAL WAS instantly appealing, a British hill station purpose-built for pleasure in the mid-1800’s. It’s function remained the same, a naturally air-conditioned resort town for the middle class to escape the lowland heat.
We found lodging at the friendly Snooze Inn amongst the stone cottages on Bazaar Road, and went for a walk down to the tentacle-like lake where we were treated to some heavy rain showers which sent sodden paddle-boat punters racing for cover. We sheltered at the boat house to enjoy the fun and the shivering cold.
The evening was even cooler and we dug deep into our bag to find our jackets before heading out for a comforting bowl of thukpa and some momos – the winter deception complete.
The cool micro-climate was conducive to activities like relaxing by the lake watching the row-boating poseurs surreptitiously trying to ensure that we were in the background of their snaps, and hiking to scenic spots past pukka bungalows in the hills.
The Pillar Rocks and Green Valley View were popular with the mostly Hindi speaking tourist set, as was promenading and browsing in the shops along Bazaar Road where fat dairy cows roamed, and monkeys swung from the rooftops.
The monsoon had reached this remote corner of Tamil Nadu and the daily downpours added to the charm of the place. In the afternoons we snuggled in our room with it’s big bay window and ‘dish TV’ watching masala hits and the Prince of Wales stakes live from Royal Ascot.
Heading back to the plains was such sweet sorrow. We said farewell to our hotelier, his inaccurate weather forecasts our running joke, and went off to the bus stand to find something to take us to Dindigul. The first stage of the days journey spiralled us downward, the Tamil movie blaring from the DVD soon obscured by the crowd standing in the aisle. The conductor made up for this by turning up the volume. Our driver drove extremely cautiously, until a flower garland was bought for the framed picture of Jesus above the dashboard, which ensured our safe arrival in Dindigul three and a half hours later.
From there another DVD coach took us a further two hours eastward. The air was scorching by the time we reached Tiruchirapalli, our tongue-twisting destination better known as ‘Trichy’!
A SCOUT AROUND THE BUS STAND for a place to stay didn’t turn up much, we settled for Vijey Lodge, then set off for a look around town. A city bus delivered us to the obvious focal point – Rock Fort looked like a fairytale castle, the sandstone outcrop smoothly eroded and topped with gold-tipped temples. From it’s peak we could see across the pastel-coloured city as far as the Palani Hills. And out of an ocean of coconut trees across the River Kauvery, rose the tall gopurams of the Ranganathaswamy temple.
It looked so good that we went to check it out the next morning, but it was more impressive from a distance, and we ditched the idea of staying in Trichy for another day. Instead we swiftly packed our things and jumped on a bus to Thanjavur, just fifty kilometres down the road…
AFTER FINDING OUR WAY TO the city centre on a second bus, a quick hotel hunt turned up the unfortunately named R.S Lodge. It wasn’t that bad, although the fifty year old ‘room boy’ was a bit painful.
Thanjavur was an appealing place, and after an excellent banana leaf meal which included a delicious ripe mango curry, we spent the afternoon at the palace museum checking out the thousand year old Chola bronzes, and later at the Brihadishwara temple of the same era.
The temple was beautiful, and we beheld the holy Shiva lingam and sat in the courtyards watching and chatting with the pilgrims for some hours as the sun released us from it’s penetrating gaze.
The next morning we moved on again. After shaking off the room boy from hell, we wandered across to the city bus stand to luck transport just leaving for Kumbakonam, an hour on down the road.
Of the hotels around the bus stand, we bypassed Anus Lodge to end up in the uninspiring Arun Lodge, then set off to orient ourselves.
KUMBAKONAM WAS ANOTHER GREAT temple city in the ancient Chola heartland, and we found some corners to relax and take in the atmosphere…
The nectar from Shiva’s pot in the Mahamaham Tank looked less than ambrosial to our untrained eyes, so we just watched from the sidelines as the faithful took their baths.
At the Kumbareshwara temple we sat in the shade of a mandapa watching the antics of the mischievous temple elephant. Down by the River Kauvery the idea of sitting by the ghats was soon quashed at the stench rising from the little brown dollops of excrement scattered liberally around. We settled for the view from the bridge – people dug holes in the dry riverbed to try and squeeze a few drops of water out of it for their washing needs, as we attracted more and more interest from the passing traffic. Before long we were surrounded by so many children that more people stopped to see what was going on. Smaller siblings, even a tiny baby, were brought out to meet us, and passers-by gave us gifts of mangoes!
We made a day trip to Gangaikondacholapuram, after practising it’s pronunciation for a couple of days in advance. A bus took us forty kilometres to what was just a tiny village left with a grand name from the time of the Cholas – and a huge temple with a manicured lawn perfect for Sunday picnickers.
We returned to town in the heat of the afternoon and decided to take shelter in one of the city’s movie houses. As we strolled past the Meenatchi Theatre we noticed new posters pasted up, and a respectable crowd of women buying tickets…
Inside, the theatre was crumbling; cobwebs hung in sheets from the ceiling, fans whirred on the walls, and the film sprung into life on a tattered screen disturbing a colony of bats which twittered in indignation throughout the movie. It was a love story, beginning with the requisite wedding scene, ending with the requisite electrocution scene, and with plenty of fighting, singing and dancing in between.
Another day trip was to Swamimalai, a village of bronze artisans, seven kilometres upriver which we walked back to town from, desperate for some exercise. We spent the rest of the day trying to revive ourselves with cool drinks and a banana leaf meal at the Gemini Tower, where our return business earned us special favours from the waiters like extra drumstick and eggplant in our sambar!
We left Kumbakonam with the redundant knowledge of how to say ‘Gangaikondacholapuram’, swimming in our heads along with Chandramukhi’s hit songs. The stench of human excrement in the bus stand was soon overpowered by our bus’s cargo of jasmine incense, and we happily motored off northward to Chidambaram, two and a half hours away.
CHIDAMBARAM WAS A TOWN CENTRED around the temple dedicated to Shiva in his manifestation of Nataraja, lord of the dance, and as soon as we put our bags down in the Mansoor Lodge, right opposite the Dikshitars Welfare Trust on East Car Street, we were off to check it out.
It was midday, and after making our way around a maze-like series of courtyards, we found ourselves inside the open-air sanctuary bound by a two storey mandapa hall containing the gold roofed shrine of the holy Nataraja. It was an exquisite temple, and the top-knotted priests, all descendants of the dikshitar caste brought to the temple a thousand years earlier, were busy preparing for the morning pooja. There were already plenty of devotees paying homage to the idol, and at the ear-splitting tolling of bells more came running as the priests began their ritual. Eventually the bells hushed as a lone voice chanted an ancient hymn to a strange silence, then the bells began clanging again and the pilgrims pressed together with their hands raised in supplication as the door closed and a flaming candelabra of oil was thrown out a side door with the other pooja detritus.
We returned in the evening via the eastern gopuram which was decorated inside with the stone reliefs of one hundred celestial dancers. The evening pooja was much more vigorous and well-patronised – male pilgrims meditated until the bells began tolling, and we saw the fire ceremony inside the inner sanctum with it’s rahasya lingam signifying that god is nowhere but in the human heart…
Moving on the next day, we ambled down to the bus stand and climbed aboard a likely-looking vehicle. “Pondicherry?”, we asked a fellow passenger, and his answer, “parle Francais?”, we took to be affirmative.
The road took us through verdant paddy fields tended by women clad in brightly coloured sarees to the old French protectorate.
AT THE SPRAWLING BUS STAND we managed to find a city bus heading to the town centre despite the information desk attendant who had pre-determined that we wanted to go to Tiruchirapalli, and enjoyed the ride through the city along streets with French names controlled by police in red kepi’s.
We found the adequate Raj Lodge with signage out the front announcing “chambres disponibles”, and went about the business of exploring ‘Pondy’.
The seafront Roubert Salai was good for an evening promenade, and the adjacent neighbourhoods were so full of French flavour we could even watch a few games of petanque! But the heart of Pondicherry seemed to be Sri Aurobindo, the benevolent faces of he and The Mother (an aged but glamorous-looking Parisienne renowned for her theories beyond Darwinism) looked down at us wherever we went, from eating our lunchtime banana leaf meals to shopping for exotic agarbathis and hand-made paper products in chic boutiques at odds with the reality of India, it’s dirty nose pressed up against the cool glass shopfronts…
At the ashram we went to pay our respects to the immortalised cult couple who were enshrined together in a beautiful garden, their tombs covered with flower blossoms, and an endless procession of the devoted and the curious filing past or kneeling in adoration. We were undoubtedly in a unique corner of India.
On the morning we left we downed a couple of steel thimbles of cafe au lait and some idli from a friendly streetside coffee bar, and waved goodbye to croissants and chocolate truffle cake. A city bus swept us back to the bus stand, and soon we were sitting on a coach with a bank of flashing icons headed to Thiruvannamalai…
It was a three hour journey, including a break in Gingee where we gazed up at fortified temple complexes on stony hillocks as a procession of oddballs streamed down the aisle of the bus – vendors noisily selling snacks with warped cries, a hideous-looking beggar, a green-turbaned mendicant who filled the bus with choking holy smoke, and a boy with a revenue-producing spear pierced through his tongue. The bus duly filled beyond it’s capacity and we continued westward, blasting with a train whistle anything which got in our way.
STREWN WITH HUGE BOULDERS, the Shevaroy Hills rose individually and we were headed for the largest of them – Arunachala, the place where Shiva turned himself into a lingam of fire!
We leapt off the bus as soon as we caught sight of the soaring temple gopurams at the foot of the mountain in Thiruvannamalai, and tried to orient ourselves in this extreme example of a chaotic Indian town before settling on a room in the Udipi Brindhavan, a pilgrim’s lodge with a popular meals hall downstairs.
Most visitors went to Thiruvannamalai to gain spiritual merit, and although we were outside the season we saw and participated in plenty of low-key merit-making. A fourteen kilometre circumambulation of the holy mountain was the most ambitious undertaking given the sweltering conditions, but we started off early and took a very slow pace, following other pilgrims on the variable Pradakshana Path – sometimes a stone-paved walkway through the bushland, or wide tamarind shaded avenues dripping with monkeys, or even bustling bazaar streets. Sadhus circled in the opposite direction, perhaps to maximise their exposure to merit-seeking pilgrims, they greeted us with a cool, “Hei, chillum?”. There were plenty of places to rest and pray along the way, and at one wayside shrine we squeezed through a symbolic stone yoni (vagina) to free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth (my delivery had less complications than Dave’s!).
Later, in the Arunachalaswara temple, we learned that the place was so holy that one could attain salvation by a mere thought of Thiruvannamalai, and we watched a beautiful pooja at a Ganesh shrine as the sun set behind the mountain rising above the colour and spectacle of the temple. The elephant-headed Ganesh was lovingly bathed in milk, then carefully dressed in a new dhoti as the pious bounced up and down tapping their skulls and making salutations.
The next morning we ate a substantial breakfast of pongal and coffee under a picture of the Ramana Maharishi who was devoured by ants, then, unable to resist another physical challenge, we climbed to the top of Arunachala.
It took just over an hour, and two litres of sweat to reach the desolate summit, where we found a surprising amount of activity. We stood barefoot on the oily ash-covered peak imprinted with the footsteps of Shiva, while on a lower platform scores of orange-clad followers chanted a pooja with an ascetic residing in a lean-to, as the wind blustered around us at a cool 800 metres above the town below. The ascetic had lived there for fourteen years consuming nothing but chai!
We followed a different route down, and the views as we descended were breathtaking – the pilgrims circuit laid out like a map around us, the town, the magnificent temple complex, and the hills rising from the surrounding landscape.
Unfit, our legs were like jelly as we walked back through town and stumbled upon a cinema which happened to be showing the smash hit whose posters had already caught our eye around town. As luck would have it the film was about to begin and we were quickly ushered through the front gate as the rest of the surging crowd was beaten back into submission.
Box seats turned out to be quite luxurious, and we then had three hours to recover from our mornings exertions with air-conditioned entertainment.
The rabble in the stalls went wild for the special effects of ‘Anniyan’, the story of an uptight nerd with two alter-egos – super smooth Remo, and the evil Anniyan seeking rough justice through crowd-pleasing violence – death by leech, buffalo stampede, pit of spitting cobras, and battering and frying with ‘chicken 65’ masala! In the end our hero won the girl of his dreams, and doctors combined his egos to produce the ‘perfect Indian’ with wavy hair and a check shirt. No expense of imagination was spared on the colourful song and dance scenes which pulled the entire extravaganza together.
We ate crispy onion pakoras at intermission, and on the way out a full length mirror was thoughtfully placed for the male audience to check their look, with more than a few surreptitious bangs being pulled forward Anniyan-style, as we waved like royalty to the next crowd waiting to go in!
We ate a late lunch on our way home, attended by a phalanx of eager waiters ladling some of our new Tamil favourites – spinach and pulse, melon and lentils, sticky plantain, sambar, and mango pickle, with plenty of broad smiles. We retired to our room with a bag of mangoes for the rest of the day, where on our television Ian Wright tried to inspire us to visit Korea and ‘Baltiwalia at no.43’ made us laugh…
Onward bound, we found our way to the bus stand the next morning, and waited with the masses as a league of beggars tugged at our sleeves. We were saved from a particularly persistent one thrusting a dried dog head at us, by the arrival of our bus, a breezy old clunker headed for Chennai, but able to drop us off at Chengalput.
The vehicle dodged school children and ox carts while inside we dodged elbows, bellies, buttocks and bosoms from the crush of people in the aisle. The divided highway that we came to was good, even if we had to access it by going the wrong way down an off-ramp, and exit by driving down the wrong side of the road for several hundred metres – the oncoming traffic took it all in it’s stride.
In Chengalput we were deposited at a point which buses to Mamallapuram passed, and before long we were chugging along the last thirty kilometres to reach our destination after five stifling hours.
MAMALLAPURAM WAS ON A SMALL scale, easy to navigate and easy to find good value accommodation. It was a tourist village, and the attraction was the Pallava-era rock carvings, the most impressive of which adorned the low hillocks to the west of the village. There the smoothly rounded monoliths were richly decorated with superb bas reliefs and cave temples, entire rock faces danced with legendary images from the Ramayana, and tree-shaded pathways snaked between the boulders (one of which was poetically named ‘Krishna’s Butterball’) and up to a pair of lighthouses, one modern (1900AD), and one ancient (600AD).
A couple of kilometres south, rock hewn rathas were carved from giant boulders and included a life-sized elephant which completed the irreverent look and feel of the site.
The famous Shore Temple was, we thought, the most over-rated archeological survey in the entire country. It sat near the seafront pathetically dwarfed by the piles of rubble protecting it from the sea, and being painfully plastered with an undignified-looking papier mache which our preposterous entrance fee was no doubt contributing to. We left with a bad taste in our mouths which even a masala dosa from the Mamalla Bhavan couldn’t alleviate.
Several kilometres to the north, we walked to the Tiger Cave, an intricately carved dance stage in a pine-shaded park. The walk back along the beach was great (once we’d passed the grogan-mined fishing village), the Coromandel seascape flattered the Shore Temple from a distance, and a sea breeze tempered the fierce heat which we had to shelter from in the cool of our tiled room for the hottest part of the day.
Evenings on the beach were as fun as a barrel of monkeys. Horses raced up and down the sand throwing their novice riders off at will, while their inattentive horsemen performed somersaults from a springboard. Busloads of tourists rollicked in the surf fully clothed, only mindful of removing their friends mobile phones before dunking them, kicking and screaming, into the water. Vendors roamed, selling timely refreshments, and a poignant memorial in the sand commemorated the six month anniversary of the tsunami…
We made an early start for our our next destination, Tirupati, and ate our usual idli breakfast staring up at a picture of a tsunami after-wave crashing next to the Shore Temple at a bus stand dhaba.
A bus took us back to Chengalput, where we waited longer than we would have liked for an onward connection. In fact the whole journey took longer than anticipated – a tedious seven hours to cover 180 kilometres, including frequent and interminable stops…
TIRUPATI WAS ACTUALLY ACROSS the state border in Andhra Pradesh. Everyone spoke Telugu, represented by a curvaceous script, and the movie posters featured a new array of superstars. The bus stand was huge, and out of the jungle of hotels surrounding it, Dave sniffed out the Hotel Nithin Krishna, quite okay for a couple of nights, but a bit too furnace-like to make a good sick-bay – which was where I ended up…
After too many days of treatment-defying diarrhoea, I swallowed another batch of medicaments and suffered a rest day while Dave mooched around town. Now that the monsoon had stretched it’s arms across most of the country, the small pocket that we were in was the hottest part of the sub-continent. The nights were the worst, with desperate measures called for to try and keep cool. Frequent sluicing with cold water didn’t really help; sprinkling water on the mattress and sleeping under a soaking wet lungi with the fan drying everything out in minutes, at least made it bearable.
Not wanting to waste the entire rest day, we spent three hours in one of the air-conditioned cinemas just down the road. ‘Andarivadu’ was an Andhran production, with a chubby middle-aged superstar billed as “man of the masses”, who kicked his way through fight scenes, drunk his way through brawl scenes, and shimmied his way through dance items. There was a very nice cameo played by a rat, a happy ending for the good guys, and death to the villain. The audience was disappointingly quiet, not even singing along to the hit songs, and though able to sit attentively for three solid hours, found it impossible to remain seated for the final two scenes in their eagerness to be the first out the door and off on their motorcycles.
The next morning I felt fit enough to tackle the climb to Tirumala in the hills above town – in fact the reason for the towns existence.
A bus delivered us to Alipiri at the foot of the mountain and from there we slogged our way up the first two thousand steps with a steady stream of barefooted devotees labouring up the first kilometre with the heavy baggage of children and snacks. The next two thousand steps were spread over seven kilometres, and the whole climb, in the comfort of a fully shaded walkway, took just over two hours.
At the top we were amazed by the sight of such mass pilgrimage that a mini-city surrounded the temple of Venkateshvara, and pilgrims became part of a darshan production line. At least half a lakh of people (50,000) came on a daily basis, and millions annually, making it the busiest site of pilgrimage on earth. And on that average day it really felt so.
The pilgrims queued for everything – to have their heads shaved, to get darshan tickets, to buy the customary prasad sweets, and to make darshan. The final queue took several hours of waiting – something that we didn’t have the necessary devotion for (we also skipped the tonsure!), but we sculled a spicy sachet of buttermilk, and ate the sweet prasad kindly offered to us before making our descent.
We met quite a few of the climbers that we’d set off with in the morning, still slowly making their way up, and took a more leisurely pace on our return, stopping often to chat with the multitudes of faces coming towards us. Many lovingly daubed red and yellow tilak powders and pastes on each stair, and some set each step ablaze with flaming camphor balls. Others chanted devotional cries of “GOVINDAHHH” to spur themselves and their groups on. We were implored to pose for numerous photos, snaps, and selfies, and smiles flowed freely, with everyone anxious to know if we were enjoying ourselves!
And at the Lakshmi Narayan Restaurant, back in town, the waiters were as eager to know if we liked their South Indian food, “very fine” we answered truthfully, and as had become our custom, we pecked on snacks and cool drinks for the rest of the day – a chikoo shake here, a lassi there, and a ‘special gobi masala dosa‘ to finish off with while watching a fat lady wearing a a pink saree eating the most enormous poori we’d ever seen…
The following morning we joined the moving mass of humanity at the train station. The neighbourhood doubled as the pilgrims temporary camping quarters, so one had to step carefully and inhale shallowly…
The Garudadri Express departed punctually at 6:45am, and although we rode ‘cattle class’, it was a pleasant three hour journey back across the border into Tamil Nadu and on to the metropolis of Madras…
THE HARD PART THEN WAS finding our way from Chennai Central to Triplicane. We got on the correct bus out of the snarling tangle opposite the station, but failed to see our landmark through the mass of people we were jammed with in the aisle, so we ended up in another part of town altogether.
We crossed the road for another attempt on the return journey, but instead jumped on the next bus to pass which happened to promise ‘Triplicane’ on it’s signboard. A dearth of landmarks still gave us a few more problems, but we eventually found the hotel district, and a comfortable room for just 150 Rupees in Cristal Guesthouse on C.N.Krishna Road. Just as importantly, we then fell into the Maharaja Hotel at the end of the street for an outstanding banana leaf meal.
The next important business was to organise our onward passage as we began familiarising ourselves with the city. Our neighbourhood had a nice feel. The friendly residents lived their lives candidly, and simply walking along the streets revealed a cross-section of the local life; people eating meals, bathing on the footpath, dressing their children for school, all with smiling megastars of the silver screen watching over then from colourful filmi posters.
Strolling along, one inhaled the essence of the country, each breath intake brought a different facet to the senses. Jasmine flowers, stale urine, incense smoke, sun-baked shit, savoury snacks frying, raw sewerage, exhaust fumes, rotting garbage, chai brewing – it was like an olfactory roller-coaster ride!
Meanwhile, the flamboyantly named Pinky Lazar in a little travel agency down the road, efficiently sold us flight tickets to Colombo and on to Bangkok. That decision out of the way, we set to enjoying our last few days in India…
Shopping for last minute purchases on Anna Salai didn’t turn up too many irresistible treasures, though I added a cookbook to my modest collection, the stores were a cool respite, and we met a freshly tonsured young man who excitedly remembered seeing us climbing Tirumala!
We took a suburban train to Georgetown, and walked through the streets filled with colonial relics to Fort Saint George – along the way we bumped into young Rajoo who remembered us from Mamallapuram, and excitedly greeted us by name!
One afternoon we took a stroll along the marina to Mylapore. There we found the San Thome Cathedral, and sat quietly in it’s vaulted depths contemplating the tomb of Doubting Thomas himself. It was a very austere place at odds with the happy-go-lucky atmosphere out on the beach – a long and broad expanse of sand, filled with fun games, snack vendors, and evening promenaders. We even watched government dignitaries screaming by in a motorcade of white Ambassadors – just like in the movies!!
At the post office we thought our patience was being tried when it took one and a half hours to send a parcel on it’s way; but our day got worse when it took us three hours to find the Theosophical Society grounds on the southern outskirts of the city. In the end, sheer determination drove us on after a comedy of errors compounded by a bus conductor who thought he knew where we wanted to go. Anyway, the gardens were pleasant when we finally found them, with a four hundred year old banyan tree to sit under – it could supposedly provide shade for three thousand people! And the suburbs that we inadvertently visited were very nice…
It only took an hour and a half to find our way back, not including the final rain-splattered walk home.
On another day we went to the movies. The sweet young lady in the tourist office gushed “Shah Rukh Khaaaan” at our request for a film recommendation, sending us to Sathyam Cinema to see ‘Paheli’, the latest Bollywood blockbuster. It was a beautiful, romantic film about a woman who falls in love with a djinn. Set in Rajasthan, the scenery and costumes were very nice, Shah Rukh Khan played the heartthrob to a tee, and Amitabh Bachchan (wearing the biggest turban of them all), made a surprise appearance. The audience muttered continually throughout as they digested the Hindi dialogue, and the director cunningly kept them in their seats until the credits rolled with a final song and dance scene.
For our culinary needs we didn’t have to venture much further than the Maharaja Hotel. Their Chettinad banana leaf feasts varied each day and were absolutely delicious. Especially good was their saag masala, tomato curry, beetroot poriyal and excellent peanut podi.
Breakfast around the corner consisted of piping hot idli, where quality was necessarily high in order to compete with the famous Murugan’s Idli Shop nearby, and we could never walk past Aavin’s without popping in for a lassi. And who could miss out on the porota and curry sauce – the renowned ‘roti Chenai’ that the Malaysian’s copy to perfection.
It was with some melancholy that we headed off to the airport, not least because of the gross inefficiencies that we knew we were going to have to endure.
At 5:30am we walked down to the bus stop that we’d reconnoitred the day before, and jumped on a number 22 to Egmore Station. From there a suburban train took us the sixteen kilometres to Trishulam. We had a chuckle at a sign along the way warning passengers to “EXERCISE CAUTION WHEN ENTRAINING AND DETRAINING”, but then had to make a flying leap to the ground when our carriage fell short of the platform at Trishulam Station!
Chennai Airport was in a nice forested neighbourhood, black and yellow Ambassadors were neatly lined up outside, and scrums of people congregated at the arrival and departure gates. We fell into a series of queues presided over by an overabundance of confused minions intent on drawing out the check-in process. One bushy-tailed lad spent long minutes staring blankly at the Mongolian visa in one of our passports before pointedly ripping out the Bangkok sectors of our flight tickets. He then whipped a stapler out of his pocket to remedy his error.
We wended our way past duty free shops selling last minute gift ideas (Roopvati Rajasthani Barbie), and sat with a group of puzzled-looking passengers watching a television playing dramatic footage of American pets being rescued from their cruel owners. Finally, our lighter was confiscated in a triumphantly inane last gesture…
Sri Lankan Airlines flight UL122 rocketed off right on schedule, and took us soaring over the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and out over the sea. Within minutes the Jaffna Peninsula was laid out beneath us and we slowly descended over the island of Sri Lanka, verdant in contrast to the aridness of Tamil Nadu.
COLOMBO’S BANDARANAIKE AIRPORT was sleek and modern, with gun emplacements to ensure against any future unplanned renovations. We were efficiently directed to a city bus, and enjoyed the thirty kilometre ride into Colombo already surprised at how different the country felt to where we’d just come from.
At just 30 degrees celsius, the air felt refreshingly cool, almost bracing, and there was hardly a check shirt or saree in sight. The traffic was more colourful with brightly painted tuk-tuks threading through it, and everything seemed immediately calm and orderly. At the central bus stand (which smelled only vaguely of urine) we changed to another more local bus heading down Galle Road to Bambalapitiya, and leapt off it at what we hoped to be the appropriate moment.
We were only a couple of hundred metres off our mark, and smugly walked down towards the sea and the Ottery Inn, a rambling colonial building with a dusty snooker room and four metre high ceilings. The manager, Mary, showed us to a 770 Rupee apartment which boasted a bath beneath a picture window with a sea view!
With what remained of the day we made a brief foray around the neighbourhood and had our first taste of Sri Lankan cuisine. An enthusiastic Tamil named Michael sat us down with something he called ‘nasi goreng’ which we mixed with curry and a couple of spicy sambals. The chilli burned, but with our deft hand movements the other diners who were watching us closely were satisfied that we knew what we were doing.
The next morning our impressions of Sri Lankan food didn’t improve, with some limp porota served to us for breakfast in an eatery choked with cigarette smoke.
At the immigration office we were granted visa extensions without fuss (after each contributing 2700 Rupees to the department!), the only hold-up in proceedings was for a patriotic recital of the national anthem. All stood for the multi-versed rendition with many singing along.
We spent the remainder of the day exploring the city, first taking a bus to Pettah, then slowly making our way back by foot.
The markets of Pettah teemed with life and colour, the streets were full of trucks and handcarts transporting goods, and we tasted some of the fruits of their labour – cool, fresh woodapple juice, mangosteens and rambutans. Further along in the Fort area we perused the grandiose department stores on York Street, and ventured into the high security zone. The city generally was well guarded with armed and alert-looking soldiers at every intersection, but the streets around Janadipathi Mawatha were so heavily fortified that we had to walk in a caged-off footpath surrounded by blockades, gun emplacements, soldiers and bombed-out buildings. The neighbourhood was one of the birthplaces of modern terrorism and it was a disturbing place to wander.
Further along we found a man selling ‘lunch packets’, a bargain at 50 Rupees each, including a generous and unnecessary handful of extra chillies, “for taste”. We sat in a sliver of shade on the Galle Face Green and watched the waves crashing as we enjoyed our feast of rice with various dishes on top – dahl, dried fish cooked in onion sauce, beetroot, egg, spinach, all was fiery hot but delicious, and we continued with our walk invigorated by our meal.
The Green was a pleasant place to stroll, and we discovered that Sri Lankans enjoyed social liberties beyond the imagining of their Indian neighbours. Couples walked along HOLDING HANDS! And sat under umbrellas KISSING and EMBRACING members of the opposite sex! There was even the odd NIPPLE TWEAK!
We continued on to Beira Lake, an olive green expanse of water dotted with spot-billed pelicans and a pretty little Buddhist shrine on an island. We circumambulated then headed home to make plans for the next day.
Out of a jumble of destinations we chose Kurunegala, and getting there was quite straightforward.
We ate a pretty ordinary breakfast of idli and poori at Michael’s establishment, then jumped on a city bus going to the bus stand and there changed to another going up-country. We drove for two and a half scenic hours, the lushness of the countryside further enhanced by the sight of brimming rivers and rambutan vendors lining the shaded roadsides.
KURUNEGALA WAS A PLEASANT ENOUGH small town once the initial hurdle of finding a budget accommodation option was out of the way. We spent an hour and a half dragging ourselves all around to finally stumble upon Oliver’s Inn. A dungeon-like room cost 600 Rupees, but the old manager was charming, and the pork and chicken lunch packets from the nearby Diya Dahara restaurant by the lakeside were excellent.
To fill in the afternoon we climbed up to Athagala, a granite hill rising from the middle of town. Steps chiselled into the rock helped us up an otherwise impossibly steep gradient to a giant seated Buddha looking out over the surrounding countryside.
The next day we made a long and strenuous excursion to Yapahuwa, fifty kilometres to the north. First we breakfasted on an Anglo/Lankan concoction of potato curry in a jaffle, then found our way to the train station where the ideal train going to our exact destination by express was just pulling out…. We had to wait for the ‘all stations’ baby train which terminated three stops short of ours – but it was a nice ride anyway. We rattled our way along with our heads out the window watching the world go by. Most of the halts were merely forest clearings with dirt tracks intersecting them, we chatted with a nice family, and marvelled at a thrill seeking dog who survived being hit by the slow-moving train!
From Maho Junction we walked for an hour or so to the ancient citadel of Yapahuwa. What remained after 800 years was little more than a stairway climbing up through the jungle to a temple platform, but the site was beautiful and especially atmospheric as we explored with a group of young monks. Their bright robes of saffron, purple and maroon charged the jungle with their colour, and their enjoyment was contagious. We followed them to the very top of the citadels’ natural outcrop; spread below us was the outline of the ancient capital – moats, platforms and avenues only occupied by a small monastery…
Getting back was easier. We walked halfway to Maho then a bus picked us up and connected with another going back to Kurunegala. Having got by all day on a few lentil cakes, we topped up our bellies with some birthday cake (chocolate torte and ‘fancy cake’ which looked like a mangosteen) and fruit salad with cashews and pistachio ice cream.
After much contemplation we headed off the next morning to Anuradhapura. We walked back around the lake with the morning exercisers and school children all dressed neatly in white, then ate ‘string hoppers’ (rice noodles) with dahl for breakfast in a small cafe, before finding the appropriate bus in the rather glamorous new bus stand.
Our driver took us northward at breakneck speeds, only slowing sufficiently for the conductor to scoop passengers in and out of the back door, and with rest stops to give everyone a chance to recompose themselves with a vada snack, “hmmm wadi, waddddiii!”. The trip only took three hours, and once in town we managed to jump out at the correct intersection near to the budget lodgings.
WE SHOOK OFF AN UNPLEASANTLY persistent tout, then settled ourselves at the Lakeview Guesthouse. There, our host Lalit filled us in on the bad news about the scandalous rip-off that the government indulged in to extract revenue from their foreign guests. At the ticket office an extortionate US$40 was collected from each of us for ’round tickets’ by a woman unable to even speak our language!
Feeling very unwelcome we walked dejectedly into the sacred precinct and sat ourselves beneath the Sri Maha Bodhi, grown from a cutting of the very tree which the Buddha attained enlightenment under, and brought to the island two and a half thousand years ago by the daughter of Ashoka, Princess Sangamitta. The tree and it’s saplings created a beautiful garden full of exotic birds – babblers, parakeets, koels, barbets, malkohas and imperial green pigeons. We watched the subdued comings and goings, ladies wearing white carrying lotus blossoms, monkeys mischievously pilfering the blooms, and monks leading small groups of pilgrims.
The next day we made a major exploration of the ancient city built around the tree. Three great monasteries had made up it’s core, with magnificent dagobas still rising out of the forests. We cycled first to Abhayagiri, and the ruins of the monastery were beautiful in the quiet of morning with peacocks, woodpeckers and hornbill squawking in the jungle around us.
The day passed by with us weaving between the giant stupas and resting by picturesque tanks, allowing the numerous school groups to dictate when it was time to move on…
We cycled back into our driveway within minutes of a downpour which lasted into the night, and Dave heroically went back out in search of dinner – he returned with an eggplant dish with fried rice and fish rolls – a tasty epilogue to our day.
Deciding where to head off to the next day was such a conundrum that we ended up staying put. We took a breakfast of ‘string hoppers’ with an eye-watering curry sauce down to the vast Nuwara Wewa tank for a birdwatching excursion as we mulled over our options.
Later, back in town, we found a more passable ‘rice and curry’ lunch than we had previously, and spent a relaxing afternoon on our terrace before a dinner snack of hoppers, a uniquely Sri Lankan dish served with chilli sambol.
The next morning we headed off with less purpose than we should have had after a full days contemplation. At the old bus stand we waited for a bus to come and then spent the next two hours speeding southward to Dambulla. There we waited by the dusty roadside nibbling on corn cobs and listening to the lies of local tuk-tuk drivers for an hour or so until a minibus emblazoned with the word ‘Sigiriya’ came along, then we bounced around for another thirty minutes to the tiny village which was once briefly the capital of the island.
WE SQUEEZED OFF THE BUS outside the few drink stands which was the centre of the village and settled ourselves at the rustic Nilmini Lodge. The only place to eat ripped us off 100 Rupees each for ‘rice and curry’, then we went off to explore.
The countryside around Sigiriya was beautiful, the rock outcrop which formed the fifth century citadel sat amid lush forests wonderful for walking through. Wild elephant spore littered the tracks, and birds flittered like bright green jewels through the foliage. we found our way to Pidurangala, the outcrop which the original monastic retreat of Sigiriya was moved to by King Kassapa. A climb to the top afforded fantastic views to Sigiriya and the mountainous horizon in marvelous peace and solitude.
Back at the lodge we spent the evening chatting with Ashley and Victoria, a couple of English students suffering an internship in a nearby village.
We were up at daybreak the next morning to beat the crowds and hopefully draw some atmosphere from the ancient citadel. It was indeed extraordinary with it’s water gardens and eyrie-perched palace remains, but was way overrated by the Sri Lankan authorities who deemed that hapless foreigners should pay one hundred times the normal entry fee for the privilege of taking a look around! Workmen shattered the morning silence and ugly scaffolds and railings ruined the sense of antiquity. The saving grace was the exquisite frescoes painted in an overhang halfway up a rock face. Gorgeously life-sized celestial damsels drifted in cloud puffs enticingly offering flowers and fruits. The artists ochre sketching outlines were still visible, and in fact emphasised the fine vegetable and mineral colour pigments of the finished works which took my breath away…
At lunchtime we slipped out for ‘rice and curry’, and moved lodgings to the Flower Inn across the road, unceremoniously evicted like Kassapa’s monks from the Nilmini Lodge because our host saw the prospect of bigger Rupees from wealthier punters than us – by this stage the Sinhalese people were not endearing themselves to us…
At least we were permitted to go back and spend the afternoon at the citadel, but the day ended on another sour note when even a simple transaction for a snack couldn’t be made without argument – the old weasel didn’t even look surprised at being told to jam a bottle of Elephant Necto up his arse…
The next morning our smiling-faced hostess, Preety, ripped us off for a previously unmentioned ten percent ‘service fee’, then we took the bus back to Dambulla for breakfast, and another on to Polonnaruwa. We ate our stodgy porota beneath a picture of the Kabbah, which meant we paid the correct price for them at least…
IT TOOK TWO HOURS TO REACH Polonnaruwa, and we were greeted by the now expected gaggle of tuk-tuk touts who we disarmed with some greetings of our own. We wandered into the first hotel that we came to, the Darshani Guesthouse, trying to rid our ears of the nauseating islander music which our bus driver so enjoyed.
The rest of our day was pretty good, the little Sriyananda Restaurant provided a nice ‘rice and curry’ featuring a green eggplant dish, tasty beetroot, shredded leaves mixed with coconut, and a fish curry which was so spicy it had to be toxic. The lady chef watched our enjoyment from the kitchen and the entire feast, including refills, was only 65 Rupees each.
We spent the afternoon poking around the museum and checking out some minor ruins nearby to the south, set in verdant countryside irrigated by giant sluices spurting invitingly clear green water from the ancient reservoir.
The next day we explored the northern remnants of the twelfth century city. Another 2000 Rupees worth of scrap paper was torn off our ’round ticket’ butts so we could see more piles of bricks.
We made a leisurely tour by foot and were disappointingly underwhelmed. A giant reclining Buddha with a serene face marbled in granite was the only highlight, though there were some nice brick dagobas, and a crazy lady chanted long incantations with her hand on our heads at a Shiva Devale (we found it best to humour her – when others ran in fright she gave chase!).
Full moon Poya day didn’t cause us any transport problems when we moved on the next day. It only took three hours to reach Trincomalee, even with a change of bus in Habarana. The single lane road took us into what was for years a war-zone, and the further we drove the heavier the military presence became, until jittery-looking soldiers were practically lining the road.
WE LEAPT OFF THE BUS IN Post Office Road and gravitated to Kumar’s Cream House which had some rooms upstairs and a cool ‘fruit mix’ to drink while we waited for one to be cleaned.
Trincomalee had a really good vibe. Strolling around the small town people were very friendly towards us, we often stopped for short conversations, men politely complimented me on my dress (I’d gone back to wearing my salwar kameez), and even the gun-toting soldiers warmed us with waves and genuine smiles from beneath their green flack helmets. We had a good ‘curry and rice’ meal with fish cutlets from the halal Al Hamra incongruously situated next to the shop a few doors down.
In the evening everyone headed down to Dutch Bay beach for a sit, a promenade, or a spot of crab chasing, with Tamil hits playing on a loud speaker system. The water was clear blue, and the sand clean and white without a trace of any ‘brown jobbies’, even in the fisherman’s village!
“Trinco’s’ famous tourist beach, Upaveli, was surprisingly less pristine. We took a bus there for the morning and enjoyed a swim in the calm crystal waters of the Indian Ocean. We ate papaya and woodapple under the coconut trees near the French Garden, and went beachcombing amongst the flotsom and jetsom.
Back in town we had a tasty ‘pure veg’ lunch at the New Ambal Cafe then caught the matinee show at the Sihara Cinema across the road from our room. It was the opening day of ‘Chinna’ and our arrival turned every head in the full house. There was only one other woman in attendance, and the crowd was rowdy in the small theatre which, with it’s tin roof, was like spending three hours in a sauna, but with cigarette smoke instead of steam! We sat in plastic chairs and the ceiling fans sliced across the screen – whenever the outside door opened we were revived with a burst of cool fresh air! The Tamil flick starring Sri Sri Chitra was about a woman who falls in love with a psychopathic murderer (akin to a singing and dancing Sylvester Stallone), but she marries a singing and dancing Tom Cruise type while her true love languishes in jail after a nasty decapitation scene. The audience loved the villainous hero who sadly died in the end, shot by the woman he loved after a killing rampage which ended in Secunderabad! With eyes streaming from the smoke, that was our cue for lassis and a falooda at Kumar’s, which turned out to be the most popular ‘cream house’ in Trinco.
The next morning we waited outside the New Ambal Cafe after a meal of ‘set dosa’ for a bus to Dambulla. Back into the lion’s den. Dambulla was a fairly unappealing place, we were dropped off at the main intersection, and began looking around for a place to spend the night, walking down the Kandy road trailed by a relay of rickshaws.
BY THE TIME WE HAD SETTLED ourselves at Healey Tourist Inn, and found lunch and fruit provisions, it was still early enough to pay an afternoon visit to the nearby cave temples. Sri Lankans, regardless of their religious persuasion, marched in by the hundreds for free, while us pale faces were slugged 500 Rupees – again raising expectations of grandeur…
The grottoes were pretty, full of brightly painted Buddhas and murals dating back a couple of hundred years. It was an active place of worship, and devotees (mostly women) filed through with lotus blossoms to offer the statues. The hilltop setting was also nice, and we spent a few hours watching the people coming and going.
Finding an evening snack back in town met with the usual frustrations as we were quoted specially inflated prices within sight of a stylish billboard welcoming us to Dambulla!
In the morning our host, Priyankana, waited with us by the roadside for a bus to Kandy. Unfortunately buses were always full by the time they reached Dambulla, and we stood squashed in the aisle for two hours, buffeted around as passengers desperately tried to extract themselves at their stops. No second chances were given by the driver, and for every one that got off another ten climbed aboard.
IT WAS NOTICEABLY COOLER IN Kandy as we happily burst from the bus in what looked like the city centre, and after a quick intake of our luscious surroundings we found the Old Empire Inn, a one hundred and fifty year old pukka colonial gem overlooking the lake and the entrance to the Temple of the Tooth.
We immediately went off to explore and were captivated by the setting of the sacred precinct in a misty mountain fold. In the Sri Pattini Devale we watched a very nice pooja, not Buddhist but quasi-Hindu with bells ringing and a priest jangling gold bangles as offerings of fruit were carefully sliced and returned as prasad. There were many babies at the shrine, which was small and beautifully decorated with representations of the goddess Pattini from Madurai.
A stroll around the lake was also nice, with vistas of the forested city, and reptiles lurking on the waters edge – the two-legged variety checking us for gullibility, and the giant water monitors hunting for food. Looking for alternative lodgings for our planned return visit we also met the Swiss pair, Eves and Carrina who we’d met in Trinco. And in the market we bought a healthy snack of buffalo milk curd, passionfruit and rambutans.
The next morning we made an excursion to some villages an hours bus ride out of town. Eventually we emerged bewildered from the chaotically disorganised bus stand on a vehicle which we hoped was going where we wanted. It was, and the pleasant conductor and several passengers kindly pointed us in the right direction once we reached our obvious destination, Embekke village.
It was a nice walk to Embekke Devale where we sat with the guardians for a rest before continuing on to Lankatilaka, a fine thirteenth century temple set gorgeously in the hills surrounded by tea gardens and rice paddys. We climbed the rock cut steps and sat outside the imposing building admiring it’s stucco work as a goon with grazed knuckles raced off to report our arrival. Within seconds another flunky was at our elbow excitedly tearing leaves out of a ticket book used exclusively for foreigners – he took the news hard that we didn’t wish to either buy a ticket or go inside the temple…
We sat and enjoyed the view, soon surrounded by school children keen to make friendly conversation with us. Into this jovial crowd pushed a robed monk with his teeth bared. In a country where Buddhist monks murder politicians daring to broker peace, we thought that this pop-eyed maniac was going to go for our throats as well as our wallets. His demands for money were followed by rude orders for us to leave! The children looked on in disbelief, their questions about how we liked Sri Lanka frozen on their innocent lips. Their teacher, embarrassed and apologising, we trying to shrug it off and wondering why we were persevering in such a miserable country…
Back in town we sought shelter form the racial storm in the ‘Kandy Muslim Hotel’ where we’d had our breakfast porota, a place where the food was good and we were made to feel welcome.
Mooching around town was our most strenuous activity the next day, and we whiled away several pleasant hours just sitting on our verandah, briefly catching up with Victoria who had escaped Sigiriya, and watching the clouds drift across the Knuckles Range.
The weather seemed always in a state of drizzle, recently drizzled, or about to drizzle, and we left the next morning without having seen the sun at all in Kandy.
Train service number five took us rocking, rolling, riding into the mountains, the views becoming more beautiful and the gradients steeper the further we lurched along. Our speed averaged about fifteen kilometres per hour, slow enough to take in the mountain vistas and even pick the flowers along the side of the track!
The stations that we pulled into looked like quaint cottage gardens, and pink orchids grew in abundance. As we climbed higher tea gardens took over the landscape, snaking like giant green caterpillars around the hillsides with groups of smiling ladies hand plucking the pekoe tips. Higher still and mists shrouded the greenery as we looped upwards through patches of rhododendron forest speckled with brilliant red flowers.
Everyone had already reached for their woollens by the time we had climbed to the summit level of 1898 metres (from a starting altitude of 500 metres in Kandy), and after six hours we finally rolled down to 1440 metres and our very appealing-looking stop at Haputale.
BRUSHING OFF THE FEW RATHER polite hotel touts, we found lodging just a short stroll away from the station at the Royal Top Rest Inn, near the centre of the village.
Haputale spilled across a small saddle on a ridgetop with great views in all directions. The mostly Tamil population restored our faith in the Sri Lankan character – the people were really nice, and the children even gave US bonbons!
Suitably inspired and enthusiastic, we set off the next morning after a breakfast of ‘coconut roti’ with dahl, to go hiking amidst the fine scenery. A bus took us ten kilometres along a stunning plantation road to the Dambatenne tea factory from where we walked up into the clouds through tea gardens perfectly manicured as if the quality of the brew depended on it.
The workers chatted melodiously as they plucked, carefully selecting the freshest buds, pausing to smile and wave as we passed by. As we neared our destination the cloud miraculously lifted to reveal blue skies and a spectacular view from Lipton’s Seat. The mountains fell away to the plains below, and camellia bushes once belonging to Sir Thomas Lipton swirled around the hillsides beneath us.
Before long the clouds moved back in enveloping the scene, and we sat for a while chatting with a ‘field officer’ named Siripala, identifiable by his copybook ‘uniform’ of shorts and long socks.
We walked all the way back to Haputale, wiser about the short cuts and socialising more with the pluckers, many of them wearing smart cholis and demanding to be photographed!
We fell into the New Saravana Bhavan at about the same time that we had the day before, and we were fussed over like royalty as we wolfed down our rice and curry featuring the bounty of fresh vegetables that we’d seen growing in the tea estates – yams, eggplant, pumpkin, garlic, swamp cabbage, drumstick – and chillies. All we could eat for 40 Rupees each!
The weather was clearer the next day, and we headed off along the western ridge, first through more tea gardens to the colonial mansion of Adisham, then continuing on further into the Tangamalai Bird Sanctuary which included patches of thick jungle teeming with endemic species. The train line snaked along beneath us, and after six kilometres the ridge narrowed and dived down to meet the railway at a spectacular vantage point hemmed in by cliffs to one side and an escarpment studded with tea bushes ringing with the sound of sweet voiced pluckers.
We continued the short distance on to Idalgashima Station, and walked beyond into another spectacularly situated estate, resting at a viewpoint with the plains at our feet, the plantation clinging precipitously to the slopes behind us and the outcrops of Horton’s Plains away to the east. We quickly aroused the interest of some passing school children who, after being warned by a passing foreman not to disturb us, gave us their undivided attention for an hour or so – feeding us their biscuit snacks, showering us with flower petals, posing for photographs, and solemnly showing us their school report books. They laughed excitedly when Dave answered some of their questions in Tamil and gave us an address to send the photos to.
We walked back along the railway tracks to Haputale, an easy downhill stroll with only one gloomy tunnel and one scheduled pause for a down train to go rattling by. The tracks took us all the way to the Saravana Bhavan at 2:30pm – a little earlier than our usual…
We went further afield the next day, taking a bus thirty kilometres down a cliff hugging road towards the plains and Diyaluma Falls. From where the bus set us down we looked up at a two hundred metre waterfall plunging over a sheer rock face flanked by jungle.
Taking local advice we found a track just down the road leading up a valley behind, villagers pointed us in the right direction along the way, spiriting us through a rubber factory and past a farm house, until we were clambering up rocky slopes through shoulder high blady grass. But our reward was well worth the effort.
At the top was another waterfall which cascaded through a series of cool sparkling rock pools shaded by the jungle – and we were completely alone. Our sweat-drenched clothing dried on the rocks while we swam, trying out each pool in turn until we finally sat in the plunge pools right at the cliff edge before the water tumbled over into the valley far below – a surreal spot to bathe.
We spent a couple of idyllic hours up there with the dragon flies and fishes for company before the scramble back down to the real world…
We waited over an hour at the bus stop, a nice Muslim family came along for a picnic but packed up their rice packets in double time at the arrival of two bus loads of party boys from a Colombo bottling plant. They made music and danced, drank beer and swam, then shared their chicken biriyani lunch packets with us as they each told us a different slurred version of the story about an adventurous abseiler who had perished at the waterfall a month earlier. We erupted from a cloud of kindness and cigarette smoke to hail down the bus which transported us back up to our cool mountain abode.
That night we were saved from a boring evening with a Gideon publication by the start of the one-day series live from Dambulla. We were banished to the television room downstairs by a rude newly-arrived family from Colombo (who also insisted on covering the toilet seat with newspaper!), but the drunken local company was better anyway – all the more amiable as Sri Lanka won the game over India by three wickets.
We filled in the next morning with mooching activites, wandering to the Kellibedde tea factory and taking an early lunch at the Saravana Bhavan, the kind-hearted waiter was still spooning bean and potato dahl onto our plates at 12:05, but we ate unhurriedly knowing for sure that the 12:16 train service to Bandarawela would be running late.
It was, and we eventually chugged off in a rustic third class carriage thirty minutes behind schedule, the train lurching tenuously down tracks which we later learned were so dangerously ill-maintained that the railways general manager was demanding that the line be closed!
WE ALIGHTED IN BANDARAWELA JUST ten kilometres and 5 Rupees away, and there made contact with our Hospitality Club host, Nimal, a semi-retired surveyor who came to collect us in his faithful bongo van.
At Cargills we just had time before he came to add to our cache of bananas and passionfruit a nice piece of ‘love cake’ to take along with us, our much sought after Sri Lankan delicacy…
Nimal lived in the nearby countryside in a spacious house with a market garden. His wife was abroad but we spent the afternoon with he and his son, and cocker spaniels Billie and Spencer. We relaxed getting to know our host, watching a spot of cricket, playing Scrabble, making a tour of the garden, and waving goodbye to Nimal’s son who climbed into his young friend’s car which bore the tell-tale signs of being owned by an alarmingly bad driver. Nimal shrugged as we three climbed into the bongo van for an excursion to Dowa temple a few kilometres down the road. There the monks all knew Nimal, who was their English language guru, and we were shown around the beautiful caves as his guests…
Back at home we talked late into the night, fuelled on by a good squid and vegetable dish prepared by the cook, learning plenty about Nimal’s very practical-minded views on Buddhist philosophy – and his enjoyment of humorous anecdotes.
In the morning we drank coffee fresh from the garden and chatted over a leisurely breakfast of ‘milk rice’ with chilli sambol before heading into town where we bade farewell, he with business to attend to, us with a bus to catch.
IT WAS ONLY THIRTY MINUTES on to the village of Ella, also at a pleasant one thousand metres altitude and surrounded by forested hills. Our arrival was unconventional, so we mercifully avoided the touts whose reputation preceded them, and had a leisurely look around for accommodation, settling on the Rawana Holiday Resort, a bargain for just 400 Rupees with our own hot shower.
The village itself was just a few straggly shops fronted by a line of leering rickshaw and taxi drivers – pretty uninspiring, though Ella was a good place to relax.
We made a stroll down to the local Kinellan tea factory, and bought some very fresh broken orange pekoe (packed just two days before), and we made a nice mornings walk up to Little Adam’s Peak for a bird’s eye view of the valley and a chance to tick off some new bird species. Layards parakeet was the only endemic that we spotted, but that led us down to a shola of jungle where we saw langurs, woodpeckers, scarlet minivets, a bar-winged flycatcher shrike, and an emerald dove.
Back in the village the lunchtime options were so bad that we decided on a splurge at our hotel restaurant. It took a couple of hours to prepare, and cost over 600 Rupees, but we ate an absolute feast waited on by lovely old Kumal. There were homemade sambols and pickle, plus six dishes, the best of which was a sensational garlic curry, a whole plate of plump garlic cloves, perhaps a dozen bulbs (!), cooked until smoothly textured and delicately flavoured with fenugreek seeds. Kumal was impressed with our eating stamina and kept appearing from the kitchen with extra dishes to tempt us into setting some kind of record…
So we had plenty of energy the next morning for a climb up to Ella Rock – actually the hard part was in finding the trail… We walked several kilometres a long the railway line, twice having to leap from the tracks at the sight of oncoming locomotives, then bush-bashed up an escarpment finding only occasional strips of trail to follow. The view from the top was good, with the previous days conquest way below us across The Gap.
In the afternoon we continued down the railway line to the Nine Arch Bridge, a scenic spot where we watched the 3 o’clock train come rattling shakily through a tunnel and onto the bridge at 5 o’clock. A family from a nearby house kept us company on the bridge, pointed out a great shortcut, and pestered us for money all the way back to Ella.
We were happy to leave the next morning, especially after the cunning Sonita tried reneging on the agreed price of our room, and waited by the enormous street sign which labelled Major Montegu Jayawickrama Mawatha in three languages. A bus came along soon enough, and took us down what was more concisely known as Ella Road to the plains below. At night from our balcony in Ella we could see the lights of Wellawaya far below, and that was where the bus took us to.
There every person at the bus stand gave contradictory information about buses on to Kataragama – we couldn’t figure out what their ill-intentions were, but found the correct bus anyway and bounced off in a yellow Tata heading directly to our destination…
Travelling via Buttala, the road passed through the Yala Ruhana National Park, though the only wildlife we spotted from the bus was a jackal, elephants roamed in impenetrably thick forest beyond electric fences.
KATARAGAMA WAS IN THE DRY zone, and the lowland heat came with flies and the discomfort of no electricity. The Priyantha Rest was the first hotel we stepped into, right opposite the bus stand, perfectly adequate for us despite being described as a “flophouse” in our guidebook.
A lunchtime stroll turned up good ‘rice and curry’ at the Bite Restaurant, with some nice okra and yam dishes, and approving nods from the wait staff at our eating techniques. But the town’s leafy streets were otherwise deserted, even when we went out later to check out the temple – our reason for visiting Kataragama.
There were a trickle of devotees at the Kiri Vihara, a purely Buddhist dagoba which eventually saw a steady stream of worshippers circumambulating with bunches of lotus blossoms. A bit later at the Maha Devale people began flooding in, and the devotional activities varied from sedate to bizarre. Groups of Buddhists wearing white sat quietly praying while we watched a man wearing only a lungi offer the god Kataragama a flaming coconut, then after prostrating himself (still offering the coconut), proceeded to roll sideways all the way around the compound. He was so exhausted on completing this extreme act of piety that he barely had the energy to smash the coconut on the auspicious rock!
The evening pooja began with the temple elephant offering a huge bunch of lotus flowers at the Buddha shrine then kneeling before each deity in turn. Bells rang out during the ceremony which mostly went on behind a peacock curtain in the Kataragama shrine while a cauldron of camphor burned outside.
Afterwards the pilgrims mingled socially, smashing coconuts, eating the fabulous fruit platters offered as prasad, or sharing them with the elephant who was surprisingly choosy, sniffing out succulent pieces of watermelon as people paid 30 Rupees to duck between his legs three times.
Walking back through the town everything had come to life, the electricity was on with shops and stalls selling snacks, and pilgrims being shuttled around by bus.
In the morning all was comatose again. We hunted down a breakfast of dosa with dahl, and ate listening to appallingly bad Sinhalese music while the waiters kept several of their eleven dogs under control with a stick.
At the bus stand there was eventually enough people to fill a Lanka Ashok Leyland Viking, and so we were on our way by 8am. The driver sat amid a riot of plastic flowers, dangling trinkets and flashing icons, and having selected his favourite schmaltzy cassette, swept us off toward the southern beaches.
We hit the coast at Hambantota, a town whose outskirts were still in a state of devastation eight months after the tsunami. People were living in tent villages with barely any signs of rebuilding.
WE HAD REACHED TANGALLE BY 10:30am, and set off along the beach of Medaketiya looking for a place to stay. The beachfront Namal Hotel had just re-opened since it was reduced to a skeleton by the tsunami. The young manager, Hemachandra, told me how he had saved his daughter and found his wife after eight hours of frantic searching after the wave hit. We were the first guests to stay in his newly functioning oceanfront rooms, the surf pounded just a few meters away with the wreck of a fishing trawler, the Sagarapura, sitting indignantly in the sand, and the ocean beyond stretching away southward to Antarctica…
The first thing to do was to have a swim, the deep blue waters were refreshing but somewhat treacherous under the influence of the southwest monsoon. We hauled ourselves from the water puffing to be told that today was a good day for a ‘sea bath’ as the conditions were calm! The golden sand beach was still beautiful, although there was plenty of evidence of it’s recent destruction. No buildings were unscathed, some had a few rooms repaired, but most sat forlornly as the wave left them on that fateful morning. Shocking was the high water mark still clearly visible just below the roofline on the buildings in our neighbourhood.
We walked far to the north and everyone was happy to see us, one young hotelier still seemed to be in state of shock as he told us his amazing survival story near the ruins of his once thriving business.
To the west of town lay another series of beaches separated by rocky headlands and strewn with wrecked fishing boats. We walked as far as Silent Beach, an idyllic sweep of golden sand shaded by pandanus and swaying coconut palms. We stretched out on the sand for hours as we watched the waves roll in foaming the blue to white.
The next morning we made an excursion further along the coast to Kudawala. At the bus stand nobody understood where we wanted to go, so we left on a bus doubtful about where we might end up. But after riding for half an hour the bus abruptly stopped at nowhere in particular and we were beckoned to get off.
Villagers pointed us along the beach, and soon we were following a stream of people on Sunday outings to the Hoo-man Blowhole. A crowd gathered on a clifftop oohing and ahhing as the sea spurted high up a cleft in the rock and fountained a further ten metres into the air. We sat like rabbits in the only available shade with a nice family from Kurunegala who shared their peanuts with us while trying to persuade one of their number to please climb back out of the blowhole…
We made it back to our beach in plenty of time for an afternoon of lazing around.
Life would have been great in Tangalle if only the eating options in town were adequate. Even edible fruit was hard to come by, and we just went through the motions of chewing and swallowing our breakfast at the Perlim Hotel the next morning before climbing on a bus heading further west along the coast.
WE GOT DOWN IN MIRISSA, a seaside village right on the coast road about one and a half hours away. The place didn’t show much promise as we looked for accommodation with traffic whizzing by along an ugly roadway, but hidden down behind the buildings was a string of small guesthouses set on a pretty crescent of beach with the coconut trees and pandanus lapped by the ocean.
Chandra and her friendly German shepherd, Billy, showed us to a beaut 400 Rupee room at Central Beach Inn “only for foreigners”! And just down the road a nice lady named Narlini cooked good curries for our mealtimes, though her ‘green chilli curry’ was something I would call extreme food. In contrast to Tangalle, Mirissa had rebuilt itself since the disaster, almost everything was functioning under fresh coats of paint and new walls of the same shoddy salted concrete bricks.
A few short walks and a trip to Weligama aside, there was blissfully nothing to do but swim or sit on the beach watching the activity. The mostly French tourists only stayed for one night, and made the most of every minute of equatorial sun exposure. The local lads played with boogie boards and the resident beach mongrels who busied themselves with territorial disputes and hole digging (the dogs, not the lads), or wanking and shitting behind the pandanus (the lads, not the dogs). The beach was steep enough that the tides were barely noticeable, though now and then some unlucky sunbathing punter would suffer a surprise inundation.
At night the beach was equally beautiful with stars twinkling, fireflies flashing, and hundreds of hermit crabs on patrol making delicate tracks across the sand. The headland separating us from Weligama Bay was silhouetted with a spine of coconut trees which by day sprang artistically in all directions.
After three days we were ready to move on, and went from splashing in the ocean shallows to being crammed in the aisle of a speeding bus within a space of minutes.
It was a scenic one hour ride along the coast to Galle, passing beautiful beaches still dotted with a few resilient fishermen precariously perched on sticks in the rocky shallows. The old fort section of Galle we could see jutting picturesquely into the ocean several kilometres before we reached it.
INSIDE THE RAMPARTS FINDING accommodation was more difficult than anticipated. Although that part of town was mercifully untouched by the tsunami, the hoteliers were gleefully profiteering from the foreign aid workers who had driven the prices up and standards down – the best we could do was a 750 Rupee room in the Weltvreden Inn including a tsunami story from the elderly hotelier who watched the wave approaching from the town ramparts before running for his “dear life”…
The town itself was really nice, a colonial relic of the Dutch East India Company with three hundred year old buildings, and quaintly named streets enclosed by impressive stone ramparts protecting it from the sea.
We took a couple of days to explore, and made a day trip back along the coast utilising the train service to Koggala. It surprisingly (and alarmingly) reached speeds of up to fifty kilometres per hour, bouncing us up and down in our seats as the other passengers smiled nonchalantly. We walked back along the beaches, attracting every opportunistic con-man within sniffing distance, until we’d had enough then caught a bus back to Galle.
Although it was the country’s fourth largest settlement, eating was still only something to be done for survival. Perhaps the buffalo milk yoghurt sold in disposable terracotta pots was particularly good, but everything else was best forgotten…
Finding information about our onward transport options was also more difficult than anticipated, the place was so dodgy that two con men had taken up residence in the government tourist office with the security guard furtively keeping cocky at the door. Piersena, our hotelier, was more useful with his recount of the journey to Adam’s Peak which he last made in 1963…
Although he recommended the train because it had “firm contact with the ground”, we opted for the bus which we hoped would be quicker, and got up at the crack of dawn to maximise our chances of reaching Dalhousie in one day.
We had left Galle behind by 7am, and our first leg took us up along the coast to Colombo. Tsunami devastation here was also absolute, with barely any signs of rebuilding. People squatted in the ruins of their homes continuing on with their lives.
By 10am we were wading through the chaos of Colombo’s main bus stand which we emerged from at 11 o’clock on a bus bound for Hatton. This second ride took four hours, two hours suffering the talents of some bored lads singing Chandramukhi hits in acapella, and then a scenic climb into the mountainous tea country of the wet zone.
At a truck stop near Kitugala we ate the best meal we’d had in days, not least because at 2pm it was also our first, and only, meal of the day. The bus waited while we devoured our curries with the waiter standing by attentively, “more rice, sir?”
It drizzled continuously in Hatton as we scrambled for the last two seats on a bus to Maskeliya, with Dave just having time for some shopping before we puttered off dangerously balancing a durian on the floor between us and a child on Dave’s lap.
It took over an hour to cover a distance of twenty kilometres in this rather uncomfortable arrangement, but we were back in majority Tamil territory, so the drivers selection of music had us toe-tapping, and the childs mother was ever so grateful, showing her appreciation to Dave with a sweet smile and a ‘thank you’ head wobble.
In Maskeliya we changed to yet another smaller bus with even more people crammed inside it. This last ride of just fifteen kilometres took another hour, including a stop at a police check post where one keen young officer made a good impression of a bloodhound while another explained to us “checking explosives…”!
WE FINALLY ARRIVED IN THE tiny village of Dalhousie at 6:30pm – twelve hours after setting off from Galle. We attracted the attention of the few locals as we climbed out of the bus clutching our durian and bidding our farewells in Tamil, then set off to find a place to stay.
The menopausal owner of the legendary ‘Green House’ was unwelcoming almost to the point of hostility, so we gave that a miss. Everyone else was very nice, and Nimal at the Wathsala River View promised hot water, so we made our choice, finally staggering into a room at 7:30pm to eat our durian and have a shower. The water was cold…
Dalhousie sat in a pretty valley at 1200 metres above sea level and although it was mostly obscured by cloud, the holy mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak, towered above. We were given a magical view of it by moonlight just before we went to sleep – enough to spur us into setting our alarm for a 3:30am start in the remote hope of a clear sunrise.
The sky was still mostly clear when we set off. The waxing moon had already set so we relied completely on our headlamp in the pitch darkness. Just a couple of hundred metres along the road one of the local dogs decided to join us, and the three of us walked through the village munching on something which looked deceptively like a rock cake as we peered upward, trying to make out the shape of the mountain.
Fortunately the other dogs along the way were friendly and we picked up a few extras, though none were very good at offering advise at the few questionable forks in the darkness. Our black and white friend just waited patiently while we made our decisions, but all roads led to Rome anyway…
The path was gradual for the first few kilometres, and we felt wonderfully alone with only the sounds of the forest, frogs chirping and water rushing down the mountainside. The darkness was enveloping, we were aware of walking through tea gardens, we passed under an archway which marked the sacred precinct, a white dagoba loomed suddenly above us, and then the forest closed in along with thick cloud.
We passed a group of French hikers whose torchlight materialised ahead of us then disappeared quickly behind. After an hour of so we became aware of being on a ridge and the path steepened considerably for the rest of the way to the summit, which we reached after two hours of hiking, much less than the quoted estimates which meant that we were on the exposed peak at 2250 metres, wet from the cloud and the effort, a full hour before sunrise. Luckily there was a refuge and we sat with a girl from Perth and an enthusiastic Britton chatting and shivering while our collective dogs slept comfortably.
At first light we all bundled outside onto a peak seemingly floating in the clouds. We rang a very loud bell into the foggy nothingness and mingled with others who had made the climb – a Dutch group, some Germans, but certainly no Sri Lankans – just the proverbial mad dogs and Englishmen…
We were the last to begin the descent, giving up hope of a view at around 8 o’clock, with our faithful canines at heel, sealing their loyalty with the last few crumbs of ‘rock cake’. The hike down the five thousand steps was wonderful, especially through the beautiful cloud forest to each side of the path. Rhododendron dripped thick green lichens, cloud swirled through the ghostly branches, and flowers and mosses lined the pathway. Mists cleared to offer momentary views of the forest clad slopes and waterfalls streaming down gullies and the adjacent rock faces. It was a sublime tropical wilderness.
Back in the village our original black and white dog slept under the table exhausted as we ate our breakfast at the very friendly Hari Hotel, chatting with young Sellathyri, who claimed his decent as ‘Indian Tamil’ which we pinpointed to Ayyapan when he told us that he made an annual pilgrimage to Sabaramala. He had family in Trichy – we yearned to return to India…
We returned home, leaving our sad-eyed dog at the door, and managed to squeeze a few droplets of warm water out of the shower as rain tumbled down outside in a show of good timing. We returned to Sellathyri’s for a very good ‘rice and curry’, then spent the afternoon gazing from our balcony terrace up the valley at the cloud mass which should have been our view of the mountain.
One of the dogs slept on our balcony that night, and in the morning we found our faithful black and white friend (now known as Rockcake) waiting on the road for us. After breakfast at Sellathyri’s place two other dogs from the Green House decided to join us for an amble around the lower slopes of the mountain looking for exotic birds. The leader of the pack, who devoted much time to scent-marking and flamboyant dirt-kicking, was pretty disappointed that we weren’t climbing Sri Pada again, and excitedly abandoned us without a backward glance when we passed a group of Japanese hikers heading for the summit!
After lunch we headed up through the Laxapana tea estate in the hills above our lodgings, and although Rockcake was by now so exhausted she lay down to sleep whenever we paused to admire the avifauna, she was able to muster some enthusiasm for our prize endemic sighting – a Sri Lanka spurfowl!
Back on our balcony in the late afternoon Sri Pada finally revealed itself. The view was so good we could even see the stairway spiralling it’s way around the peak to the shrine on the summit. The sky turned orange and the holy mountain glistened in the final rays of the sunset as we dealt with the leeches that had stowed away in our socks.
Rockcake came with us for an evening stroll, then went to sleep under the couch in the hotel reception while we watched the news on the BBC and said our farewells to Nimal. He told us that the first bus out of the village was at 6:30am, and we were just stretching ourselves out of bed when we heard it come labouring through at 6:15am. We can get packed and ready very quickly when we have to , and we stepped onto the roadway just in time to flag down the passing vehicle…
It took less than one and a half hours for the direct government service to reach Hatton, thirty five kilometres away. Sri Pada was satisfyingly hidden away in the clouds as we twisted our way through the tea plantations and savoured a last delicious whiff of fermenting tea leaves from the beautiful old wooden Adisham tea factory in Dickoya.
We were on a Kandy bus out of Hatton by 8:30am, and were back in the cultural capital a scenic three hours later walking through the comparatively sultry streets to the accommodation which we had booked three weeks earlier…
WE FOUND EVA PICKING GUAVAS outside the Pink House, and although she showed us to an inferior room and tried doubling the already inflated quoted price of 1000 Rupees, the battle wasn’t as hard as expected.
In the afternoon a casual stroll around town indicated that the Kandy Esala Perahera festival was generating much excitement. As early as 1pm the streets along the processional route were already filling with spectators camped on the footpaths, and impromptu grandstands of seats were being assembled. In and around the devales it was all happening, with dozens of elephants in the temple compounds devouring palm trees and taking their turn for a bath and a scrub with coconut husk at the one hundred year old public fountain nearby. ‘Raja’, the 55 year old tusker with the most impressive set of ivories in Sri Lanka was enjoying himself so much that he inadvertently snapped off one of the newly restored Italian renaissance cherubic gargoyles.
Through the afternoon the devales became busier with both onlookers and performers arriving for the evenings festivities. A few monks mingled looking strangely out of place at what was a Buddhist celebration.
Just after sunset preparations began in earnest at the sound of an exploding skyrocket, and it took hours to costume the icon carrying tuskers. We sat watching ‘Raja’ at the Vishnu devale, he stood obediently while a tiny howdah was carefully tied to his back, then he was cloaked in an enormous blue gown with silver sequined garudas, and caparisoned with a matching mask and earflap covers. The elaborate image seat was fitted over the howdah then the electrician began work, installing a truck battery to power the blue fairy lights which set off his magnificent outfit.
Meanwhile thirteen other blue cloaked elephants were prepared and duly electrified before assembling on the Maligawa Chaturasraya below. From our vantage point we could also see the activity across in the Natha compound where the same was going on in shades of yellow. Dancers and drummers were appearing in large groups from inside the temples dressed in fantastic costumes of white lungis with red waist bands and fabulous headwear depending on their roles.
At the firing of a second skyrocket they sprung into form; the icon was placed on ‘Raja’ and he sauntered spectacularly down to join the other elephants. In front of the adjacent Temple of the Tooth the procession was already well underway, though it took some hours for the assembly in front of us to begin moving off. There was much pomp as the custodians joined the parade inelegantly astride some of the larger tuskers, and the musicians, drummers and dancers went through their paces with varying degrees of enthusiasm, some preserving their energy, others focused and prepared for the duration.
Each devale had it’s own unique procession, next to follow was the Kataragama parade with a smaller number of elephants and drummers as well as a large group of men clad in red , dancing with tridents and balancing kadavi’s decorated with peacock feathers. A number of them had hooks pierced through the skin of their backs, and each hook had a rope attached with the mass of ropes being pulled by men from behind! Their skin puckered grotesquely but they seemed completely lucid and pain free!
The Pattini procession came last, and the dancers were all women, delicately side-stepping the elephants waste products which by now lay in perilous wait for a misplaced bare foot…
Accompanying and illuminating the procession were hundreds of tireless torch bearers. They wore scarves around their faces and carried long heavy poles fitted with swivelling iron baskets containing burning copra which flared with a bright flame, an overpowering smell of coconut, and dripping oil and flaming detritus.
The Pattini devale’s procession was the finale of the parade, but it’s tail was still in sight on the Maligawa Chaturasraya when we could see the flamboyant beginning approaching from the other direction. The way in between looked like a bizarre circus war zone with piles of shadowy elephant excrement and lumps of burning copra in the darkness. The Temple of the Tooth, of course, had the most spectacular performers, headed by whipcrackers and firewheels twirled and thrown deftly into the air by artistes on the ground and on stilts. They had the best drummers, the most dancers, and the biggest elephants with the enormous Malagawi tusker towering above the streets carrying the replica casket of the tooth relic…
It was close to midnight when we headed home at the sound of a third skyrocket, marking the return of the tooth relic to the temple on this eighth day of the eleven day festival.
The next day we devoted to sleep and rest, though we did go for a short walk on the hill above town and made a trip to the market for pineapples, passionfruit, bananas and buffalo milk curd. The streets were even more congested with prospective Perahera spectators, police controlled the traffic and the crowds, and signs warned us to “BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS AND SMOKERS”!! The con men who loitered around the lake recognised us from our previous visit to Kandy, and so didn’t bother us at all – there were plenty of bigger fish to fry.
Our festival vantage spot had been so good the night before, that we decided to head back there again. The crowds were bigger and the security tighter, and at one point we were turned away from the sacred precinct because we were without passes, but we found a way around and inconspicuously nestled ourselves in the same spot next to ‘Raja’s’ costume pavilion. There were more people and more activity; colourful paan and candyfloss wallahs, and families sitting around us, one mother thoughtfully provided a snack for her small children of bread liberally sprinkled with ground dried chillies and salt!
The procedure was the same as the night before, and when the parade began we were again allowed special streetside privilege on the Maligawa Chaturasraya – a view others were paying thousands of Rupees for in seating grandstands all around the city streets. The Perahera was more spectacular on the ninth night with just over one hundred elephants in the procession, again remarkably docile in the face of the pandemonium which surrounded them. We ambled home at around midnight, making our way backstage through the excited atmosphere in the devales.
The next day was Poya Day and crowds were already staking out prime viewing positions at 9am when we went out for breakfast! Getting to our usual eating haunt was an exercise in sheer frustration, so we had found an alternative in Senanayake Veediya. Upstairs in the Saumiya Hotel we found banana leaf lunches for 50 Rupees with good curries like sticky green eggplant and drumstick with sweet onions – enough to keep us going into the late festive nights.
The streets were crammed when we went out at 5 o’clock to watch the Maha Perahera, even the Vishnu devale was full to bursting, and we spent the next four hours sitting on the grass with a group of tiny little grannies wearing white festival outfits, bouncing babies on our knees, and watching again the preparations as the full moon rose higher and higher and flying foxes filled the sky.
The police were strict and we missed our opportunity to slip down the stairs to the Maligawa Chaturasraya, so we had to watch the procession from above, and even had to plead to be let out of the sacred precinct once the tooth relic had passed at midnight so we could go home to bed…
Not so easily exhausted, the city was alive with the Perahera again the next day. We made our way into the melee at lunchtime, and after another delicious meal at Saumiya Hotel (the okra dish was outstanding), we found a good footpath position outside the Pattini shrine for the afternoons festivities. It was a nice shady spot, and Dave was invited in to chat with the solicitor and barbers who shared the office behind us, while I chubbed baby cheeks and considered the items on sale from passing vendors – ice cream, balloons, toys, bags, disco balls, kitchen utensils…! Other distractions included a tusker that ran amok with a fat custodian in full dress regalia hanging on for dear life.
The parade was again headed by the whip crackers, and included enough caparisoned elephants, dancers, drummers and standard bearers to fill the block around the Temple of the Tooth. At the sight of the last Pattini dancer the crowd started peeling away, only to be confronted by the whip crackers heralding the start of the procession coming around for another lap! Most of the crowd shuffled dutifully back into position and watched another less enthusiastic display before again crowding the roadway to get home after that last Pattini dancer had passed – only to be cornered by the whip crackers again!!
After the fourth encore we headed off to look for a snack and had walked half a block before being drawn back by a final gaggle of unstoppable pachyderms swaying to the beat of the drums. Then it was over. The streets were being swept clean of elephant poo, dogs reclaimed their rightful sleeping positions, police left by the bus load, and we made our way home for an early night.
We said our goodbyes to Eva, who was actually a very nice person, and were in bed by 9pm, unable to cope with any more lectures on the finer points of sprouting by Kiwi Duncan ‘the Bruce’. The only other guests after the mass exodus that morning were a pair of Aussie surfers driven to sleep even earlier by a lengthy bathroom renovation story…
Up at daybreak the next morning, we skirted the lake one last time. The full moon hung above and coloured fairy lights from the temple precinct reflected on the water. We were on an air-conditioned express bus to Colombo by 7am, dodging elephants for the first twenty kilometres, on their way home from the festival. We recognised ‘Raja’ having a rest and a snack, and some travelled by truck with the wind flapping their ears and their mahouts riding alongside them.
BY 10AM WE WERE BACK IN the capital, smoothly switching to bus number 100, and finding our way back to Bambalapitiya and the Ottery Inn where the dour-faced Mary was waiting behind the reception desk.
The rest of the day was equally productive, Dave called our friend Imran’s sister, Sherina, and she invited us to dinner that evening. We walked a few steps in the opposite direction at the end of our street and found an excellent eating venue – Amirthaa Hotel provided banana leaf meals complete with lime pickle, spiced buttermilk, sago sweet, and a waiter naming each item as he slapped it down in front of us.
Then we went shopping in the various factory outlets around our neighbourhood. Now we knew why the locals were often wearing designer label clothing, Hilfiger and Lauren trousers were walking out the door at just 700 Rupees! So Dave came out smiling with a new wardrobe, and I sniffed out some exotic homeware treasures.
In the evening we followed our instructions, first taking a bus to Ratmalana junction (even though the driver claimed no knowledge of such a locale), then walked as directed attracting plenty of surprised smiles, to the Cuttilan residence where Imran’s father was waiting on the footpath to welcome us with kisses. We spent a wonderful evening with he and the family, Imran’s sister Sherina and her two teenage children. Cuttilan senior welcomed us into his home with loving warmth and a smile which never left his face. And we were treated to a delicious meal of puttu with tripe curry and beef satay, kottu roti, then ice cream with woodapple pulp and buffalo milk curd with kithul treacle and sweet bananas. As is the Sri Lankan custom, we left with a sample bag of treats and they all drove us home, making us promise to visit again some day…
The next day we took a bus down to Lipton Circus and mooched around the shops and the cinnamon gardens in Victoria Park. Couples smooched conspicuously on benches, while we admired the flowers and sniffed the bark of the cassia fistula trees. We mooched all the way back home stopping at the Ceylon Tea Board to buy some high mountain blends, and the Island Coffee Shop to pick up some dark roasted beans ground on the spot, which later made our room smell sensational…
For our last day in Sri Lanka we ate traditional homemade goodies. For breakfast we finished off the jaggery/coconut sweet that was in our treat bag, and at lunchtime found rice packets typically filled with fish curry, beetroot, dahl, and a tasty sambol.
We spent some time chatting with Mary, who was desperately lonely since her son moved to Adelaide, and grabbed an ‘Elephant Necto’ and vegetable roti on the way to the airport, which appropriately left the burning taste of chilli and peppercorns in our mouths as we contemplated our departure.
Bus number 100 took us to the central bus stand, and there we jumped on a passing 187 for a slow two hour ride to the airport. We were there at 8pm, ready for a long night…
Watching the comings and goings through progressively redder eyes, we finally boarded our flight UL888 at 2am and flew off into the night. We re-routed slightly around a spectacular electrical storm which lit up the clouds beside and beneath us, then at about 3:30am we ate a meal called ‘dinner’ while watching the recent Bollywood hit WAQT starring the irrepressible Amitabh Bachchan.
I didn’t sleep even a wink before the sun rose, and we drifted slowly down over lush rice paddys dotted with glimmering wats to touchdown at 7am – perfectly on time.
DON MUANG INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT ran like clockwork. In just thirty minutes we were standing out on the highway waiting for good old bus number 59 to take us into Bangkok. We quickly remembered why we loved this city so much as we eyed off the delicious-looking roadside snacks through bleary eyes during the two hour peak time crawl.
In Banglampoo our favourite guesthouses were no longer there, so after a half-hearted search fuelled by sugar cane juice we ended up finding a rudimentary alternative called Apple Guesthouse No.2 in the same neighbourhood, and spent an unsettled night wondering whether we needed medical help for the strange swollen rash which was moving around Dave’s torso like a Sri Lankan alien.
Our next priorities were eating, sleeping, eating, shopping, eating, and just enjoying being in one of our favourite cities. Thai people are beautiful in everything they do – their appearance, the way they talk smile and respect others, and the way they prepare food. An inordinate percentage of the population seemed to be employed in the food industry, and they went to great lengths to ensure that everything looked and tasted amazing…
A delicious plate of khao man gai (chicken rice) got the ball rolling, and the next morning, feeling much more human after a night’s sleep, we revelled in the early morning market on Thanon Kraisri. This was the place to buy daily provisions, and the entire neighbourhood made an appearance, from the monks begging for alms to ladies still wearing their pyjamas, and us trying to remember how to speak Thai and wondering what to eat first.
After a huge breakfast of johk (rice porridge) and khao niow sunkaya (sticky rice with sweet egg custard), and with rambutans, custard apples, guavas and bananas to tide us over through the day, we were ready for the only chore we had to do in Bangkok – buying air tickets to Sydney.
First we hunted out and moved to better lodgings at the Peachy Guesthouse on Thanon Phra Athit, then found a pretty good deal in a travel agent on Khao San Road – 12500 Baht for a flight on Philippine Airlines which guaranteed that we would arrive home looking like hell.
Khao San Road was a microcosmic culture shock in it’s own right. We certainly weren’t the oldest farangs on the street, there were still a few wrinkled hippies around, but it was now the domain of a new generation of traveller – the ‘flashpacker’ – those who carried so much luggage that they couldn’t possibly carry it beyond a waiting tuk-tuk, or even toted it in wheelie-bags! They didn’t have the vaguest notion of travelling anywhere by public transport. The neighbourhood had been cleaned and polished into a tourist attraction – it was no wonder that these young greenhorns claimed to dislike Bangkok so much…
Within three days we were hopelessly addicted to kafae yen and had eaten our way from khao kha moo (braised pork) and kuay teow nam (rice noodle soup) to curries…
A warm up shopping trip to Chinatown was a bit disappointing , but we had serious shopping business in mind in the Chatuchak weekend market where the real action was. Bus number 3 had us out there by 8:30am, and by 5 o’clock all we had the energy left for was pathetically searching for the exit gate. Our feet were like jelly after shuffling all day in suffocating heat and ever increasing crowds, coming up for air every now and then with life sustaining fresh fruit juices. It was GREAT! At the end of the day we sat waiting for bus number 3 with Keiran, a Manly ferry skipper, comparing our spoils and wondering whether another day would be sufficient to complete the rounds of the nine thousand stalls…
It almost was, though we only touched on the fashionable pet department seen as we weren’t in the market for a giant iguana or gift-wrapped puppy. By 3 o’clock Dave was loaded down with celadon like a bull in a chinashop, and I was having trouble negotiating the crowded shopping gangways with a ratan table, so we made our ungainly exit…
After a week we were still finding fresh shopping territory every day, even though our enthusiasm was beginning to falter. There was Pratunam market , Suan Lam night bazaar, and the huge glitzy complexes in the heart of the shopping district. Maboonkrung Centre got us back in the swing with thousands of stalls bursting with merchandise and angelic vendors softly crooning sales pitches, “sawatdee kaaaa…”, “have youuuuu siiiiize…”, “manyyy colour…”, “caaan tryyyy…”, “mai daaai, kaaa…”, “anee mai pairng kaaa…”. A lunch of tom yum goong had our digestive systems burning as much as our wallet, and the experience was complete as we struggled home on the bus with our shopping bags.
Our waistlines began to thicken as we ate our way from curries to snack-tracking for our favourite dishes, hoi tort (oyster omlette), fak thong sunkaya (pumpkin custard), iced chocolate, barbecued squid, Issan sausage, green papaya salad…
And at the end of each day we could relax and contemplate in the Phrasumen park on the banks of the Chao Praya. It was busy in the evenings with a public aerobics class, children playing, people relaxing, and circus acts honing their skills. Bangkok is anything but boring.
For something completely different, a couple of days before we left we got in touch with some ‘Global Freeloader’ hosts and went to spend the night at their place in the glitzy Sukumvit Road district. Craig and Tanya, a couple from Brisbane who were working in nearby embassies had a very nice apartment on the 25th floor of ‘Park Avenue’ with sweeping views of the cityscape. It was a world away from our grungy quarters in Banglampoo. We had dinner together in a local restaurant where we learned their interesting story, and slept in air-conditioned comfort on a bed so soft we could hardly bare the compressed coconut fibre that we had to return to for our last night!
The ten days we stayed in Bangkok passed by in a flash, and before we knew it we were making last minute purchases and tasting the last morsels. Almost too late we discovered an excellent little restaurant called Puikee which did a great khao pad sapparot (pineapple fried rice) served with iced tea; and in the evening we dined alfresco (at our favourite street cart!) on a deliciously spicy fried fish dish and gai pad khing (chicken ginger)… Aroy maaahk!
Our last morning at the Kraisri street market was a wet affair – apparently our faithful but worn out umbrella took exception to being ceremoniously thrown in the rubbish bin the night before during our epic packing ordeal. We ate our johk watching everyone tippy-toe around in the rain, then bought some treats for the day speaking rudimentary Thai with the rambutan seller and Chinese with the dou jiang lady…
At 9 o’clock our pre-booked minibus came zipping along to collect us and our copious shopping from the Peachy Guesthouse, and it was already filled with a typically stoic-faced cargo. We screamed off into the traffic with the driver chirping and gaffawing jovially to his off-sider while everybody else sat rigidly silent.
At the check-in counter we entertained our fellow passengers as we energetically taped up our fragile-looking overflow bag which took our check-in luggage up to 25 kilos, then later at the departure gate watched the baggage handlers practising their football skills on everyone’s beloved treasures…
Philippine Airlines flight PR731 took us from the life we loved with cold precision – it was the end of another monumental chapter in our lives. As we flew high over Cambodia, Vietnam and the South China Sea my mind was unable to focus on the past nineteen months or speculate on the future. I drowned my emotions in the present, trying to remember how to use a knife and fork on some Hokkien noodles and considering the entertainment value of ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ which the Thai couple behind us seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
We landed at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport right on schedule and barely had time to stretch our legs before boarding our connection to Sydney. By the time flight PR209 touched down at Tullamarine I was in a desensitised limbo between what was and what would be.
A new day broke as we departed Melbourne and had our first glimpses of our motherland below, looking cold with snowy crusts on the Great Divide, but somehow welcoming. I’m not sure that I would say that it was good to be Home, but it was very good to know that this place was called Home and it was always there for us.