Day 12-15 (maybe more, I’ve lost count),
Strap in, it’s going to be a long one!
Journey’s end was in sight, not so much a chore but more of a relief. It was the final few days of travelling, to cram in as many temples and palaces as we could (or the guide felt we could!) and suck in all that we could of this exotic land.
To get things on track, we got ourselves to Kollam railway station where we hoped to travel 3rd Class (standing room only, squashed in cattle style) and experience life as a local.
Unfortunately, there were no tickets available at the cheaper end of the class system so we opted to travel in style, in seated class, leather recliners that were magnificent by any standards, comfortable and wide enough to accommodate the largest of posteriors.
We rumbled along taking in the scenery, the lush, green countryside and the villages where time had seemingly stood still.
In a few hours we reached our destination and disembarked to make our way to a temple where, barefooted, bare-chested (men only of course), and with loin cloth covering the lower regions, we desperately tried to appreciate the richness, history and sheer magnitude of yet another temple.
There was little time to fully explore this wonderful temple, we had to get a move on as, on the way to our hotel, we had the opportunity to stop off at… another temple.
In pretty much the same style as all previous temples, expecting to be less than overawed, we were pleasantly surprised. We were not allowed entry into this particular temple. Home to the most recent of the Maharajahs, he had died without leaving any successor so the government had taken control of all assets which included his place of private worship. Immediately opened up for public devotees to pay homage to their particular deities, it was discovered, somewhere in the bowels of the temple, there was a huge stash of gold. Furniture, icons, statues, coins, bars and anything else that glitters was found, in quantities so we were told, that defy description. Heavily armed guards were posted outside, inside and all over the grounds, photographs are prohibited and the government, many months after the discovery, continue to discover hidden caches of gold and precious gems. Into the government coffers it flows, however its removal with the sheer tonnage of the stuff is taking considerably longer than expected and just when they think it’s nearing the end, another store gets discovered. This enormous wealth, accumulated over hundreds of years through the Maharajah dynasties, their descendants, marriages, taxes, gifts and probably some questionable procurement, leaves no doubt as to how royalty lived and the peasants suffered. None too dissimilar to today’s society.
Not to be outdone, a hasty snapshot was taken before the big boys at the entrance spotted me. There is some nervousness and paranoia as the government doesn’t really want their find taken from them when they’ve barely had time to stash it away themselves. As robberies go, this would be a world record beater if someone pulled it off. Anyhow, we weren’t allowed in as we are not Hindus so we trotted off to find…
Built almost entirely from teak, this vast palatial home to the Maharajahs of Southern India was another example of the ‘haves’ having the best deal in life. A stunningly smooth floor made from ash and egg whites covered the entire interior and one could only estimate at the hundreds of thousands of eggs that were used merely to have a nice, smooth floor. Built over several floors, the palace was a maze of rooms with original features, fixtures and fittings still in place with little or no restrictions on visitors handling and trying everything for size. As usual, we wondered just for how long these priceless items would remain, most hangings showed sunlight bleaching to a greater extent and too many hands rubbing the same pieces of furniture does, eventually, cause lasting damage. We duly went around touching everything we could get our sticky mitts on and rubbing lots of wood, feeling back to an age when Maharajahs were supreme rulers and owners of just about everybody and everything. Often hidden from public view, the wives, consorts, family members, children and anyone else in the palace household, could wander the vast corridors peering through the hardwood slats to gaze upon an outside world that they might never experience. Such was the slatted design, they could not be seen in the dark hallways as they spied on the minions below.
We hadn’t yet made it to our final destination so we continued on, hoping against all hope that there were no more temples or palaces to visit. We wanted, we needed to be at Kovalam Beach where we could check into our hotel and rest, maybe even have a beer. We finally arrived but there was no time to lose, there was a temple to see that was quite extraordinary by all accounts. Oh dear! Kovalam is a resort where, once upon a time, the hippie trail ended for most. Local growers would cultivate and sell marijuana to any long-haired layabout who asked for it. Nowadays, such things are illegal but there is still a psychedelic atmposphere about the place, where gap students come to be a part of something different, to find themselves, before settling down to study or embark upon a meaningful career back home. Stalls selling seventies style paintings, nick-naks, tie die clothing and all manner of tourist bits and bobs, ply for your trade as this low season brings in little and most retailers are desperate to make a sale. Haggling, obviously, is ideal at this time and bargains can be had if you have no scruples about paying next to nothing for that ‘must-have’ souvenir. We bargained very hard and came away with just a souvenir for less than loose change. Still, in a land of little, a little goes a long way and we reckoned we were spreading the wealth nonetheless. We meandered the seafront.
Along the way, we pretty much invited every hawker to ply their trade with us and we beat their prices down to almost nothing just for the challenge. In the end we didn’t but anything anyway but it’s not the purchase that’s important, it’s the haggling that counts. Once we were done, we formulated a plan to ensure we would no longer be bothered by any more sellers of their ‘finest Indian silk’. The secret was…don’t make eye contact and never, ever talk to them for once they know what language you speak and which country you are from it’ll be, “Manchester United, you like the queen?, Prince Philip came here, London is best and finally; do you know David Beckenham?(sic).
Enough! We needed to go South, to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), so we could see if you could actually see Antarctica from India – which of course you can’t. This is the southernmost point, the ‘V’ of the subcontinent where, at certain times of the year, you can see the breathtaking sight of the sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously over the three seas that meet here: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
There was a temple and a palace to see so it was down to the harbour to catch the ferry to the two islands.
Four hundred metres offshore is where the famous Hindu apostle Swami Vivekananda (yeah, we never heard of him either) meditated from the 25th to the 27th December 1892, deciding to take his moral message beyond India’s shores. In fact, I have ‘meditated’ for far longer than that, over a Christmas period, stuffed with food and alcohol. I have not moved for four days or more at such times. In 1970 a two-‘mandapa’ memorial was built in Vivekananda’s memory. The huge statue on the smaller island is of the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar (nope, can’t say we’ve heard of him either). The work of some 5000 sculptors, it was erected in the year 2000 and honours the poet’s 133 -chapter work ‘Thirukural’, (that’s lost on us too), hence the statue is exactly 133 metres high. Ferries shuttle visitors out to both islands and we were not going to miss this opportunity to see another temple and palace, now were we?
We wandered about a bit and tried to remain enthusiastic about the history, the architecture and the colossal size of the thing. The Statue of Liberty by comparison, is only 93 metres high. It was jolly windy aloft we can tell you that much. We looked out to sea and there, on the horizon, we saw some low cloud and pollution. No Antarctica ice but we knew she was out there somewhere, beckoning us to visit, to lure us to wilder shores with cold bitter winds to nip at our extremities. Maybe our next adventure, perhaps..?
Don’t forget, you can see all these modes of transport on youtube, should you wish to relive our journey by car, bus, train, rickshaw, ferry and various boats:
Surely now it was time to relax. A trip down the river would do it, a trip amongst the mangroves in a boat, chugging along checking out the wildlife. Unlike the canals of the Malabar Backwaters, these waterways were not inhabited but are a nature reserve and home to an abundance of bird life and aquatic creatures. At times like these, you begin to yearn for the clever camera with a long lens but then you can’t fit all that stuff in your pocket like you can the faithful old snappy-snap-snap Nikon Coolpix. Not quite the quality but still a memory of where we went and the critters we saw.
There were an awful lot of these Kingfisher things, different sorts apparently, some big and some small and a huge one who had a very long beak. Someone was eagerly referring to a newly acquired book entitled ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’. In my eyes that’s called ‘twitching’ an totally unacceptable on every level. Not really, each to their own and though I say it myself, I have never seen so many exotic birds and Kingfishers all in one place. The photo here is without any zoom lens and the bird was no more than a few feet away. We cruised the narrow lanes between creeping mangrove roots, stopping here and there to gaze upon water-snakes, birds and the surrounding scenery.
It has to be said, this was a highlight of our trip. Not a palace nor a temple, not even a museum. Bliss! We chugged along for the best part of four hours, stopping occasionally to spot birds and to take a short break on a sand bank where giant waves crashed in from the Arabian Sea. As the sun began to set, we headed back, satisfied with our lot.
An evening meal, taken locally so as to avoid the risk of posh restaurant food poisoning, then a bedtime story and into the land of nod. The hectic pace was taking its toll so we decided to venture off locally and explore, maybe even engage a hawker or two in some amiable haggling. We came across a lighthouse, just about as traditional as they come, where it was possible to climb up into it and out onto the top parapet. And I’ll tell you now, it was blooming windy up there!
For a couple of pence we climbed the inner, circular staircase to find ourselves before an iron rung ladder, completely vertical, going up onto the roof. It was no place for the safety conscious, so we cajoled the kid into going first.
A splendid view was the reward and a gust or two blew away any cobwebs that remained.
With a descent that was even more precarious than the climb, we finally made it to the bottom, somewhat dizzy but elated at having achieved the climbing challenge and to have been inside a real, working lighthouse. Up top we polished the glass with our handkerchiefs, doing our little bit to ensure another ship stays safe out at sea. We called into a local ‘waterhole’ to take some light refreshment. Remeber what I said about eating and drinking locally?
We partook of some odd looking fruit, sliced and mixed with a syrup. Like a giant mangoustein, it was sweet and jelly like in texture, refreshing and costing no more than a couple of pence. Drank and also eaten with a spoon, served in a chunky pint beer glass, it was an interesting experience and by way of gratitude, we photographed the proprietor in order that his image be immortalised for an eternity. In amongst all of this mayhem, we took rickshaw rides, we visited a zoo, wandered towns and villages, dipped in and out of shops and restaurants, saw the sights and breathed in every ounce of atmosphere. We saw amazing things along the way; elephants moving as part of daily traffic, their mahouts riding up top, steering with skinny legs and a long stick. Rare species of birds, so I am told, were dotted along the way, as colourfully clothed manual workers toiled away in fields, locals filled the shops, the roads, and every piece of dry land available and there was chaos, organised mayhem, where people lived their lives with big smiles on their faces.
Not once, not even once, was any of us ill with an upset tum-tum. We did not bother with touristy vaccinations neither. We were bitten only a couple of times by mosquitoes. We never felt oppressed, in danger, threatened or an encumbrance. The Indian people were always courteous, kind, very inquisitive, seemingly content, clean and always well presented. Even the beggars, hawkers and the not so well off, were always clean and tidy. Plastic bags are banned in these parts and it made a huge difference to the environment. Forget the tourists spots and head for the sweet South, where a traditional India is alive and well.
That was our sixteen or so days touring Southern India. Full of wonder, a million memories and over two thousand snap-shots to sort through.