The Golden Chariot:Tamil Nadu and Kerala

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sunrise at Kanyakumari

sunrise at Kanyakumari

You’ve got to southern India. Now, facing you, is another world; a world of warmth, colours, smells, and exciting discoveries.
“Splendour of the South,” the name of the east tour, leaves Bangalore in the early evening and, after a night trip, you reach Chennai (Madras), this vibrating crowded town lying on the shores of the Gulf of Bengal. The huge variety of colourful, silk saris – the traditional womens wear – immediately catches your eye. The warm and humid air is continuously filled with the sound of horns and the smell of car fumes. Lying along the seashore is Fort St George and, sheltering within its dark stone walls, is Saint Mary’s, the oldest Indian anglican church, and its museum.
 Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram

Heading south, the road runs alongside the sandy Marina beach leading to the tiny town of Mahabalipuram, famous for its Shore Temple, the Panch Rathas and the incredibly long bas-relief of Arjuna’s Penance. All around, local craftmen urge tourists to buy their stone carved statues and artifacts. Don’t accept the first price. A little negotiation can get you a good bargain. Locals will tell you to listen to the gentle wind that whispers the local legend of the forgotten temples which are supposedly hidden by the sand of the shallow waters in front of the Temple Shore.

On the following day, look out of the window and see the sun rising over Puducherry (Pondicherry), a sleepy city looking like a poor, lonesome forgotten young lady waiting for Prince Charming. The white town, homeland of French India for nearly three centuries (they didn’t leave till 1954) remains quiet with some of these white houses (that’s where the name comes from) being former residences of officers and merchants, have now converted into lovely restaurants and hotels. The old French spirit is still there, with its right angled white streets lined with trees, and names like “rue la Bourdonnais,” “rue Suffren” and “rue Dumas.” The fragance of bougainvilleas adds calmness to this peaceful place. Strolling around or taking a rickshaw ride are the best ways to discover the white district of Pudicherry. The seaside boulevard is the place to take a walk by the end of the afternoon to enjoy the fresh breeze, stopping at “Le Café” for a drink, testing some light food at any of the snack carts set all along the seafront promenade. Puducherry is such a striking contrast to Chennai.

Next day take a morning visit to Auroville this “city in the making” as it calls itself aspires to be a universal place where all mankind from whatever country or creed can live in harmony according to the philosophical and spiritual life of Sri Aurobindo.

Have a free afternoon to wander through these quiet streets and then enjoy a relaxing dinner which has been arranged for you in an old house restaurant, the Dupleix. Follow this up with a short stroll on the promenade and then return to the train for a night trip to Trichy.

Temple of Sri Ranganatha

Temple of Sri Ranganatha

The tranquillity of Pudicherry and Auroville is gone as you go back to the true life of an Indian town. Trichy (Tiruchirapalli), swarming with people, cars, buses, rickshaws is a joyful crush. An hour long stop in a small temple on the banks of the Cauwery River allows you to see priests dressed in white gowns, sitting on the floor of the outside terrace of their temple. It becomes mesmerising watching them make drawings in the sand, burn incense, and offer flower petals to predict the future all of which depends on numbers, dates and birth signs. Finally they intercede with the gods and give blessings on your behalf.

A short hop away, stand the 21 fully carved gopurams of the Srirankam (Sri Ranganathaswamy) Temple. Surrounded by its 7 successive huge walls, each one sheltering a mix of small houses and shops, this impressive temple contains a true pedestrian town swarming with people going in and out. The main doors of the temple were built under gopurams, huge pyramidal-shaped towers covered by thousands of highly coloured statues of gods and demons. They stand like arrows in the sky, one being 73 metres high. As in a lot of the most important places of worship, an elephant is here to give blessings to devotees. It will delicately place its trunk over the bowed head of the person seeking to be blessed, but only if the éléphant itself catches in its trunk a small contribution of between one and ten rupees directly from the hand of the person. A ten rupees note seems to be the normal gift expected from any tourist, but a one rupee coin would work too.

Temple of Sri Brihadeswara

Temple of Sri Brihadeswara

Back to the coach to head for Thanjavur, where lunch is served in the resort. After a short rest, there is a visit to see a traditionnal local craftsman. One operates unpretentiously in the very small backyard of his workshop melting down bronze to cast statues of various characters like Shiva or Ganesh. The techniques used are the same since time immemorial. The furnace is just a hole in the ground, the mould is used just once and everything is hand made, even the final polishing. Simple, but the quality of his production is really mind-blowing.

The last visit of the day is to the Sri Brihadeswara temple of Thanjavur. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dedicated to Shiva and his mount, the bull Nandi of which a giant monolithic statue stands in the middle of the courtyard.

After another fine dinner and a restful sleep on board the Golden Chariot, the next morning sees us arrive in Madurai main station. Here you visit for three or four hours the Meenakshi Temple, the bigest temple in Madurai. It is world renowned for its huge coloured gopurams (towers) and enormous mandapams (halls), including the Thousand Pillars Mandapam. In each of the 985 stone carved pillars there is a huge magnificent statue of a chimera. The faithfull stroll from one hall to the other, looking to statues, walls and ceilling paintings, sitting on the sides of the Golden Lotus Reservoir, and praying throughout. For those who visit by themselves, I suggest you remember as you go in to ask for an English speaking guide. The Meenaski Temple is really huge and to find the right way to the different halls is not so easy.

Meenakshi Temple

Meenakshi Temple

At the end of the afternoon, the sound and light show in the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal emphasises this royal palace with its remarkable dome, a great courtyard and an entrance hall of gigantic proportions with majestic pillars.

That night, the Golden Chariot moves south in order to arrive before dawn at Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), the southernmost point of the Indian peninsular. It is here that the Gulf of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet the Indian Ocean. At about 5.30am, the passengers leave the train so they can be in place to watch the staggering sight of the sunrise coming over the cape. As it rises, it illuminates hundreds of Indian people from all over the country who have come for the spectacle.

Back on board, you are ready for the substantial breakfast. Take a rest while the train changes direction and now heads north. It leaves Tamil Nadu state and enters Kerala. The arrival in Trivandrum, capital city of Kerala, is scheduled for the afternoon giving you a short tour of the town and a visit of Kanakakunnu Palace. Then it is off for an evening excursion to Kovalam Beach on the Arabian Sea to discover the shallow waters and natural sandy coves. A gala dinner follows and then the programme, at the end of the day, sees you on the Malabar Coast in one of the luxury resorts along the beach.

For those who want to have spend some time here by the sea before going back home, Kovalam beach is the place to stay. The Leelah Kempinski Kovalam Beach continues the theme of luxury from the Golden Chariot but it’s also the most expensive resort. But there are lots of other resorts nearby such as the Vivanta by Taj-Kovalam. It is more affordable and you should definitely have a drink at the beach bar as you watch the sun go down. It’s so easy to believe that all is right with the world when you’re here.

Ketuvallam houseboat, Kerala backwaters

Ketuvallam houseboat, Kerala backwaters

There is an early morning departure by coach next day to Allepey for a half day boat cruise through the famous Kerala Backwaters. This natural network of canals, lakes and rivers stretches all over the sea coast of Kerala. The kettuvallam houseboats, traditional rice barges, with thatched roofs and wooden hulls, are converted into cruise boats for tourists. Try a trip. They offer bedrooms, private toilets,and a few of them have air conditioning (recommended) even in the main lounge. Kerala flavoured food is cooked on board by the crew. The house boat slips silently for a four hour cruise on the backwaters through this labyrinthine network in a fabulous landscape of green paddy fields, palms trees swinging slowly due to a very light cool wind. Watch out in the bushes and shrubs for sheltering various birds. But you see the locals as well on the banks, busy in front of their houses or working in the fields, totally indifferent to those who travel along the river.

A little late lunch is awaiting the Golden Chariot passengers in a resort on the bank of the Vembanad lake, at the end of this peaceful half day cruise. Later, a faster boat takes the group to a northern part of the lake, close to Kochi (Cochin) from where a short coach ride takes everybody to St Francis Church, the oldest church in India. This was built by the Portuguese in 1503 and was the place where Vasco de Gama was first buried. Afterwards, there is a brief tour to see the well known chinese nets, those strange looking shore based nets used for fishing, before a longer stop for shopping in the old Jewish District that now has a concentration of restaurants, antique dealers and souvenir shops.

Finally, dinner on board and a departure overnight to return to Bangalore. In the morning, all the train crew line up on the platform to bid us a last farewell. A week has passed far too quickly.

images © Frederic de Poligny
To see other photographs from Frederic’s travels see www.phototheque-des-voyages.com and www.fredericdepoligny.com

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