Day 6 and 7 (possibly),
We headed in an Easterly direction, up a mountain and down the other side, a journey of some five hours by bus on broken roads that had seen better days and some that had been washed away altogether the previous day. It was monsoon season and although we had managed to avoid any downpours, torrential rain was evident along our route where landslides and flooding had taken their toll. Finally we made it into the region of Tamil Nadu where a population of some 70 million people reside. That’s more than the entire population of the UK! A local told me that everyone is actively trying to beat China’s record for the most populated country in the world. Seriously, they are looking for that particular claim to fame. Breed on! Finally into the town of Madurai we rolled, the largest of what is known as the ‘temple towns’. Temples aplenty, their architecture is extremely colourful and the gateways to them are iconic structures in their own right. Immense ‘gopurams’ or gateways carved with thousands of painted Hindu gods are a striking element of the Dravidian temples.
This was also the home of a museum dedicated to the life, times and struggles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was here we would see the ‘lungi’ or loincloth he was wearing when he was assassinated. We would also see his spectacles, a load of written stuff to and from him as well as an illustrated history of his life with photographs and maps. All in all, pretty boring except for the manner in which the exhibits were displayed. Where light erosion was clearly evident, unsealed, hastily constructed wooden display cases let in the elements and the security of most things was sadly lacking. But then maybe that added to the naive charm of this place, a time before Health and Safety and everything sanitized. Parties of school children were being led through the maze displays and lectured on the history of the b*stard English, their b*stard occupation of the Indian sub continent and their b*stard suppression of the indigenous population. Yes, we were made to feel right colonial b*stards, which of course, we were. Still, all’s well that ends well. By way of verisimilitude, here’s a picture to prove attendance at said museum.
We made for one of the temples to find a maze of halls, pillared cloisters and sanctuaries inside, most of which were decorated with a profusion of murals, carvings and inscriptions. Artefacts dating back centuries were there for the fondling and bizarrely, display cases acted as post boxes for devotees to push through passport sized photos of themselves or loved ones – in the hope of receiving some sort of blessing we surmised? There was a heady fragrance of incense in the air, along with sweat and cooked food; unseen priests chanted incessantly and their deities were garlanded with masses of colourful flowers. Every morning a statue of Lord Shiva is brought out and then returned, put to bed so to speak, with great ceremony which includes some ritual chanting and a wafting of incense smoke. We waited patiently, sucking in lungfuls of thick, blue smoke to gawp at the solid gold slippers of Lord Shiva, minuscule by any standards and then maybe, just maybe, we might catch a glimpse of the Lord Shiva icon himself. In a carriage surrounded by chanting devotees, Lord Shiva was carried and wafted with smoke as he hid behind the red, crushed velvet curtains of his transport, not once daring to push the material aside to peer out to say hello to us. We had it on good authority that he really was in there but we never saw anything of him so cannot comment further. We left with the assumption that he could not have stood more than six inches high, going on the size of his slippers and we coughed and spluttered our way home, surprisingly excited at being part of the occasion nonetheless. By cycle rickshaw we toured the town, our rider and guide being an old man of extremely fragile stature who had the skinniest legs a human being could possibly have. Our combined weight was impossibly peddled along by sparrow-legs himself and then, we had the gall to shout ‘FASTER!’. By way of revenge, he tried to kill us by cycling into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
Blimey! That was close. We pressed on in our effort to visit as many temples and palaces as we could. There are an inordinate amount of them scattered throughout the country, some exotic, some rustic but all with an ancient charm and an atmosphere of being something incredible. We popped into Thirumalai Palace, originally built in 1636 in an Indo-Mhugal stylie, restored by the British in the 19th century (we did some good now and then), retaining some lovely examples of Tamil decoration – if you like that sort of thing? Then, onward to another temple and then another. Again, we were amazed at the very basic manner in which all exhibits were displayed, priceless items that were not environmentally protected, nothing to preserve their appearance or to stop deterioration. Several wooden frames had glass panels missing or broken and there really was nothing to stop you taking an item out and popping it into your handbag – were you so inclined. There were vases on display in one of the palaces, a gift from the Chinese dating from the Ming dynasty, that were barely protected from the elements or even thieving hands. Oil paintings, ink drawn maps, sketches and written proclamations were dusty and in full sunlight, slowly fading and rotting to dust and we wondered how long it would be before such items were totally lost forever. Still, not our problem. We moved on.
Pigeons had invaded most places and many an interior was visibly fouled. Seemingly oblivious to the health dangers, there were a few chaps scraping up a ton of dried pigeon poo from the floor as visitors wandered through the vast clouds of guano dust, oblivious to Histoplasmosis, Cryptococcosis, Salmonella and Listeria. Yeah, look them bad-boys up for a nasty tummy-bug. Pigeons aren’t called flying rats for nothing you know! We held our breath and made a hasty exit.
Back to the relative fresh air of the streets, we took in the market where flowers were on sale as a means for devotees to honour their gods with garlands of sweet smelling flora. Interestingly, a blue-eyed blonde girl caused much excitement along the way – along every way we ventured in fact, crowds followed, gawped, grabbed at, pointed to, photographed and kissed as they do their icons. Such was the interest in having a photograph taken with the ‘god like blonde kid’ we managed to produce an entire photo album entitled, ‘People I Had My Photo Taken With in India’. Back to the flower market where the pale skinned one was constantly ‘honoured’, far too often for comfort, by sellers who wanted to initiate a blessing. For their sake or hers, we could not tell.
It was about time to join the ‘rush hour’ and make our way back to our budget hotel.
The next morning we toured the streets, another temple (Sri Meenakshi Temple to be exact) and another palace before our departure back to Kerala. Just before we got going, we popped down the road to get some milk.
A simple way of Indian life perhaps but everyone seemed very happy and content. Looks may be deceiving but there were no grim faces regretting their lot, no road rage, no aggression, no wariness or weariness and certainly no fear of one’s own shadow. Maybe we’re not as smart as we like to think we are?
Time to head West…