In 1998, we visited northern India: Rajasthan, Agra, and Delhi – and fell in love with the country’s intensity. The colors, sights, temples, food, traffic, sounds and smells overwhelm the senses. We chose to visit south India this January after being inspired by a show we saw on the Discovery Channel that described Tamil Nadu’s colorful temples built in the 12th Century that were the inspiration for the art that spread throughout Southeast Asia, including Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After we researched the distances and travel times, we chose an itinerary that included Chennai (Madras), Mahalbalipuram (Mamallapuram), Kanchipuram, Vellore, Thanjavur (Tanjore), Trichy (Tiruchirapalli), Madurai, and Chennai. We decided to skip Pondicherry (a faded former French colony), Chidambaram (overly-aggressive temple guides), and Rameswaram (no western hotels). We deliberately chose a light itinerary building in extra days to absorb what we were seeing.
We arrived in Chennai at the delightful time of 12:30am after a one-day stopover in Brussels. We were relieved to find our internet-arranged local agent, Swagatam Tours, standing by the exit with our names on the placard – legible and properly spelled. This was our first experience with Swagatam’s wonderful attention to details. Swagatam arranged a car and driver for us, hotels, and assisted us in creating a custom itinerary. They also booked our overnight train from Madurai to Chennai and provided transport to and from the airport. There’s more about Swagatam at the end of this travelogue.
Anyone who has been to India knows about the insanity of Indian traffic. Cars compete with oxcarts, bicycles, trucks, suicidal bus drivers, motor-rickshaws (tuktuks), bicycle rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, and pedestrians – each vehicle bullying the others, weaving, harassing, and speeding thru heavy traffic. Lane markings are meaningless; every driver blows his horn constantly as a sonar-method to let others know where he is and for those with smaller vehicles to get out of the way NOW. Pedestrians, with no sidewalks on which to safely escape, spill out into traffic, paying little attention to their seemingly imminent death. But we survived.
Chennai (formerly Madras) is a crowded, noisy, polluted, busy, and hot city. It’s said that there are two seasons in Chennai: hot and hotter. When we arrived, we were lucky, it was only hot, daytime highs about 85 degrees. We timed our trip carefully, but were given misinformation about the timing of Pongal, a harvest festival. As a result, most of the shops were closed, the hotel deserted. This gave us time to recover from the trip, do a bit of shopping and exploring. Being in Tamil Nadu for Pongal had some advantages – farmers paint their oxen’s horns with rich colors and patterns, often to match their ox carts. Seeing these huge animals with their whimsical blue, red, and yellow horns is wonderful. We passed many festivals which had lavish decorations, music, and interesting carts, and were often greeted with shouts of ‘Happy Pongal”!
South India’s had three golden age periods: The Pallava period (7thC), Chola (11-13th C), and Vijaynagar (16-17th C). Each kingdom spent their years fighting off invasions from the north, building cities, palaces, temples, and forts, and creating some of the finest art in the world.
Chennai’s excellent museums were open despite the holiday. These state museums, although run down by western standards, had a wealth of Chola-period bronzes, many Natarajas (dancing Shiva), and a wealth of other Chola-period and post Chola art. The bronzes were housed in a former British palace, with neglected, fading portraits of British governors still hanging on the upper walls. This was a common theme in Tamil Nadu’s museums: exquisite artifacts, crumbling displays, and occasional almost reluctant mention of their colonial past. The museum provided an excellent introduction to the wonderful art we saw on the rest of our journey.
From Chennai, we went traveled south to nearby Mamallapuram, home of Arjuna’s Penance – the largest bas relief in the world (100 feet x 40 feet), carved into solid granite during the Pallava period. The granite carving depicts stories from the Mahabarata (Hindu religious text) as well as scenes of everyday life during the period. Nearby is the Shore Temple – a huge castle-like structure at the edge of the Indian Ocean – which is listed as a UN World Heritage site. Mamallapuram also has the Five Rathas, a series of closely placed small temples all carved out of the same giant solid granite block. The detail is impressive, the feat of doing this in the 7thC even moreso.
In Mamallapuram, we stayed at a beachfront resort behind two amusement parks. India is a land of contrasts and contradictions. Supposedly 99% of marriages are arranged by parents. But the amusement park seemed to have a late-teen “meeting” scene. In the water park, the visitors were almost all men, as women don’t go out in public in bathing suits. In south India, ALL women wear traditional saris or occasionally an outfit we called “pajamas”.
We took a side trip to the Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary. Although an Indian environmental movement seems to be non-existent, there are a number of sanctuaries. This one had tens of thousands of cormorants, pelicans, ibises, egrets, herons, and other waterfowl. As we were watching the birds, the other visitors were watching us like we were martians. We were actually approached by two young men who asked for our autographs!
Saying that litter and pollution is rampant in Tamil Nadu qualifies as one of the understatements of the year. There is absolutely no environmental consciousness whatsoever. It’s sad – southern India is so beautiful, with its lush green rice paddies framed by mountains. The piles of rotting garbage, plastic scrap, broken glass are literally everywhere. Sometimes people will burn the garbage, plastic and all. The waters are polluted and fouled with human waste. Luckily, after a few days, one stops seeing this, just as one stops noticing the cows in the streets.
Kanchipuram is a center for silk weaving and is also a major religious pilgrimage center. Hinduism is very unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are over one million gods, many of them different aspects or incarnations of two of the three “main” gods: Vishnu and Shiva. (The third, Brahma, doesn’t apparently have temples). Some are built to their ‘consorts: Lakshmi and Pavarti respectively. Some are built to Shiva and Pavarti’s children, Ganesh (the god with the head of an elephant) and Murugan, both of whom are particularly revered. Some are built to honor different aspects of Shiva and/or incarnations of Vishnu. Each god or goddess is associated with different goals or actions, for example Lakshmi brings prosperity.
In all, it’s very confusing unless one has been brought up with this or has devoted a significant amount of time studying it. We had neither advantage and were always confused. We also learned that people don’t switch primary affiliations – meaning that a follower of Shiva does not also pray to Vishnu. Hence one city can have a large number of temples. They supposedly look different, and our driver, Mr. Raju, was able to tell the difference at a glance. We failed to learn exactly he was doing this in spite of our best attempts.
The temples of Kanchipuram were masterpieces in design. Each pillar and column had intricate carvings, every inch was lavishly decorated. The pilgrimages to these holy sites dwarfs the concepts of western religions and is more akin to Islam’s Mecca. One temple in Kanchipuram attracted 10 million people for an event in 1979. There are literally hundreds of temples scattered throughout Kanchipuram, some open, many closed. Most are from the Chola period or later during the Vijaynagar Empire.
Everywhere we went was the smell of incense mixed with sandalwood, coriander, cowdung, diesel, 2-cycle exhaust, and stale urine. Sometimes a little smoke was mixed in. The markets were wonderful, with fresh vegetables and fruit smells mixing in. All the temples smelled like incense and slightly rancid butter, as ghee (clarified butter) is used as an offering, and butter is thrown at statues of Vishnu and Kali to soothe their disposition (butter them up?).
It was in Kanchipuram where we found our first internet café. Walking into a computer store and asking “Internet?”, we were directed to a crowded little office with 6 systems all sharing the same alleged 28K connection. In reality, the line noise and modem sharing probably reduced the real connection speed to 2400 baud. India’s internet presence is booming. When they get cable modems and DSL, it’ll be amazing.
Food prices in Tamil Nadu are low, unless one eats at hotels. The midday meal is traditionally the main meal, and most restaurants serve a Thali, a vegetarian reverse-buffet (they bring you food until you plead with them to stop). These thalis bear little resemblance to Cambridge Indian restaurants – they’re usually served on a banana leaf, the curries are fairly hot, and they don’t give you utensils unless you ask. Since we never quite got the hang of eating with our hands, we quickly learned the Tamil word for “spoon” – which is “spoon”, and Susan learned the critical Tamil phrase “karam kami” – less spicy! However, she never got the pronunciation quite right, so this inevitably led to extended interchanges with our waiters. In some of the restaurants, the staff spoke a few words of English, but more often they knew none. There were often English menus, although very few items on the menu were available. Despite this, the staff was always unbelievably helpful and friendly. They would often hover over us after bringing our food to make sure we liked what we had ordered. In India, it seems that people not only take tremendous pride in their profession, they usually go to incredible lengths to help foreigners cope with any language difficulties.
We were charmed by the Tamil people.. After traveling in northern India, one becomes wary of being approached – allegedly to be helped – but usually to lure us into a shop. Aggressive touts can make walking around unpleasant at best. But although there were touts in Tamil Nadu, they were very mild in their invitations (except one in Kanchipuram). When we were in Rajasthan, the touts made casual shopping and walking around virtually impossible. The Tamils would often approach us just to say hello. Parents would see us and tell their kids to “go shake hands with the foreigners”. Kids would come up to us to practice their English. Occasionally, people would come up to us and ask for our autographs. Perhaps this will change someday; tourism in Tamil Nadu is fairly low.
From Kanchipuram, we traveled to Vellore, a very dusty and busy city. We included this in our itinerary because it was the only chance we would get to see a Vijaynagar fort – which is still being used as a police training academy. The hodgepodge museum (with the obligatory pickled animals) had a fascinating collection of “hero stones”, tombstone-sized stellae commemorating acts of an individual’s wartime heroism, dating to the Pallava and Chola periods.
We now began our trip to the southern half of Tamil Nadu, noted for its polychromed temple gods and goddesses, temple elephants, and warmer weather. On the way, we stopped at Gingee Fort, a sprawling fortress covering many square miles.
Thanjavur (Tanjore): Before we left for India, Phil found the website of the hotel we were staying at in Thanjavur. On the site, the manager apologized for the problems he had in posting the site and asked for general tips to make it work. Phil emailed him that we would be visiting and volunteered to spend a “few moments” talking about the site. When we arrived, it became clear that this offer gave us the status of honored guests, which included “Mr. Sego and wife” being the guest speakers at the Thanjavur-Newtown Rotary Club. Susan is the only woman who’s ever been to that meeting! The hotel manager also arranged a private dance recital for us, and complimentary tickets to a music festival. The people at this hotel gave us perhaps the warmest welcome we have received in any of our travels.
By the time we reached Thanjavur, we were deeply in the rhythm of our visit. We learned about the price of prescription eyeglasses and medicines. Phil bought an excellent pair for US$10 – which would have cost $100-$150 at home, and purchased $200 worth of meds for about $10. (Advice before you go to India – get a copy of your eyeglass prescription adjusted without astigmatic correction – and get your prescription names as generics along with costs and dosages).
We were overwhelmed by the colorful temples of the south. The gopurams (gate buildings) are 9 – 10 storey brightly decorated and/or carved, covered with figures of Hindu deities, most of whom we cannot remember. The temples are reminiscent of Thailand and Cambodia These larger-than-life polychrome sculptures cover every inch of the towers, numbering in the hundred, perhaps thousands.
We continued our eternal search for getting online. We learned that a shop-owners claim of “getting online soon” meant “eventually but perhaps not in this lifetime”. Between two internet shops, we finally got a painfully slow connection. We’ve become very spoiled with our 56K connections.
It was in Tanjore that we met a few members of the notorious “one-pen” gang, discovered and exposed by our friend Tony on our previous India trip. Kids (who know no English) will surround you and demand “one pen” again and again despite assertions that you don’t have one. It’s not like there’s a pen shortage in India; the markets were packed with cheap pens. It’s not that these kids don’t have pens for school; we found out that this is not the case. We did find out that these kids sell the pens in the market – and sure enough, in the market were piles of miscellaneous pens collected by the one-pen gang. It’s sad that this is taking hold in south India; I urge all travelers to India to NOT give pens (nor anything else) as this teaches kids that Euro travelers are good targets for begging. If you want to give to the needy, there are many organizations that need assistance and will pass it along without forcing people to beg.
In our previous trip to India, we searched for the “perfect” Ganesh — with no luck. In this trip to Srirangam, we finally “met” our perfect Ganesh. The bargaining was hot and heavy, and we wound up getting an extraordinary beautiful bronze Chola-style dancing Ganesh. However, bronze is not light – and now our luggage weighed considerably more than when we started. By the time we finished this trip, our small packs would weigh almost more than we could carry.
We were constantly made painfully aware of the Indian penchant for volume. Political rallies, “happy music”, Moslem call-to-prayer, and Indypop (and Tamilpop) was regularly blasted from huge PA speakers at deafening levels well above the threshold of pain. We learned of this from Dervla Murphy’s book “Coorg on a Shoestring” – but experiencing it was something else. Luckily, unlike Murphy, our hotels were never adjacent to any of these speakers, but just everywhere else we walked was within earshot (bring earplugs if you travel here). We made a rather silly attempt at attending the Carnatic Music Festival outside Tanjore. While the music may have been superb, the volume was well beyond anything we had ever experienced, even though we both had attended numerous 60s and 70s rock concerts. But within 30 minutes of our arrival, the musician on stage began a lengthy monologue in Tamil – at extreme volume. Oh well…
The turnaround point of our southward travel was also the piece-de-resistance: Madurai. This city was built around the extraordinary Meenakshi Temple complex with 12 towers, some 160 feet high. Each tower is lavishly decorated with thousands of gods, goddesses, and characters from the Ramayana and Mahabarata. Each figure is richly painted in almost a disneyesque fashion – over 30,000 sculpted figures in all. The overall effect is breathtaking. We walked around the temple repeatedly trying to absorb the art, knowing that photos cannot possibly do such a spectacle justice. This temple is what brought us to Tamil Nadu – and we were not disappointed.
Madurai is surprisingly unknown in the USA, something we don’t quite understand. The show said that it is a holdover from an old British prejudice resulting from the shock of seeing Kamasutra carvings at Kujarahoe (sp?). We saw some Kamasutra-inspired carvings at Srirangam Temple which were not particularly shocking, although seeing them on a temple was definitely different from western religious carvings.
From Madurai, we took the night train back to Chennai aboard the Pandayan Express, a 12-hour smooth ride in an old-fashioned sleeper car. Our cabin-mates were a group of women medical students returning from the wedding of a friend. One of the women was about to be married to a fellow she had only met for ½ hour – who lives in New Jersey. He would be arriving shortly for the wedding, then the two of them would return to New Jersey and begin their new lives. She explained to us “In America, you fall in love and then marry – here we marry then fall in love.” As their divorce rate is nil, it’s hard to find fault with this concept, although it did point out the huge cultural gulf that separates “western” society and Indian society.
Back in Chennai, we picked up a few more souvenirs, although getting things into our luggage was getting increasingly difficult. Spencer Plaza, a mall-like building, and a few of the other shops on Anna Salai, have loads of souvenir shops, a supermarket with cheap takeout samosas, and clothing shops. You can get better deals outside Chennai in some cases, but not much better. Even though Kanchipuram is the silk center, it’s too touristy to get a great deal – you’re better off shopping in Chennai.
Since we had almost two days in Chennai, and our hotel was a 5-minute walk from a large cinema, we decided to take in a couple of films. If you’ve never been to a Hindi or Tamil film, by all means, do go, and sit in the main section (not the more expensive seats). It won’t be subtitled, but the plots are fairly straightforward and the acting is excellent. The highlight of a Hindi or Tamil film is the song and dance, reminiscent of the grandiose American musicals of the 40s and 50s. All films (even war movies) have song and dance scenes, but musical-comedies have more. With hundreds of dancers, lavish sets, wonderful consumes, and catchy music, these films make an evening at the theater an event you won’t forget!
On our arrival at Chennai airport, we were surprised to learn that we were upgraded to business class – which made the return flight much more pleasant. On our previous Sabena trip, we were less than impressed with their service. But on this trip, Sabena redeemed themselves.
Guides: One doesn’t need a full time guide to discover south India. Although Mr. Raju was our driver, not a guide, his knowledge of the temples and attractions in Tamil Nadu was excellent and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the trip. Most of the temples had guides-in-residence who spoke a few words of English, asking just a few rupees in exchange for their services. On occasion, we pre-arranged a guide, once in Mamallapuram, and once in Madurai. Our guide in Mamallapuram was awful – his English was poor, he knew little about what he was showing. If you go to Mamallapuram, I suggest finding a guide on the spot by talking to a few prospects and evaluating their knowledge and language skills.
However, our guide in Madurai was beyond wonderful. Mr. A.X. Raj (also known as Sammy Davis Jr., believe it or not!) was so good that he enhanced our entire India trip. Not only is his knowledge excellent, his English is perfect and his left-leaning politics and his insights that he shares about Indian society is refreshing and enlightening. He’s widely known; seek him out and accept no substitutes!
Local Guides: Temple and palace guides will show you around and then ask for money. They glom onto westerners and ignore Indian tourists knowing that they can ask us for more money. Some of these guides wait all day in the hot sun for the rare tourist and their 20 rupees. And lastly, some spoke no English and simply got in the way of enjoying the temple. As you can tell, we had mixed feelings about temple guides, and there’s no simple answer. We tried saying “no guide” but that had no effect whatsoever on them following us and persistently pointing out highlights. We tried walking the opposite direction of which they indicated, to which they became more insistent. We finally just gave up and ignored them when we wanted to. When they asked for a donation, we gave what we felt was appropriate. Sometimes they smiled and were truly thankful, sometimes they asked for more. It’s hard to know when to do the right thing – I hope that we were fair.
Guidebooks: There is a shortage of local guidebooks. Arrive with the Lonely Planet South India book in hand and augment that with the rare local guidebook -if your lucky enough to find one. Don’t hesitate to buy one when you find it – in all likelihood, you’ll never see it for sale again.
Made to order clothing (in Madurai) Skip it. The deals are okay, but the tailoring is mediocre. There are many ‘ready-made’ shops offering great deals on shirts and blouses. It’s easy to find a Madras shirt for $3 – if you like Madras shirts. Finding solids is a bit harder, but the larger shops have good selections.
Where to stay – and where not to stay: By far, the nicest place we stayed at was the Parisutham in Tanjore, not only because they rolled out the red carpet, but because the staff was wonderful, the location perfect, and the room nice. The least luxurious place we stayed was in Kanchipuram at the Baboo Surya – but even this hotel was WAY above our minimum standards. In general, all the hotels recommended by Swagatam were wonderful; we requested the Baboo Surya over Swagatam’s recommendation due to its location right in the center of town. In one town we did have an opportunity to see what a true budget hotel looked like, and I’m glad that we chose the places we did. It felt and looked like a jail cell – or worse.
Swagatam: As you can tell, this organization has our award for the most compulsive and charming tour company we have EVER had the pleasure of traveling with. Their pricing was reasonable, they took our Visa card, they were 100% perfect and on time. Why aren’t they better known in the US/Canada/UK? Good question. They are very strong in Italy, having an office in Rome. Perhaps those who read this will employ Swagatam for their Indian journey. Other good things about Swagatam: The car they provided was new, clean, had a 2.0L powerful engine, and the air-conditioning was more like refrigeration! We had heard many stories of weak AC units, poorly maintained cars, and inexperienced maniacal drivers – our driver, Mr. Raju, was masterful at his ability to maneuver thru India’s traffic nightmare as well as being a charming traveling companion. Swagatam has offices throughout India; we arranged all this via email.
web www.swagatam.com and www.swagatamtours.com
Anti-Malarial: Although this was the third time we’ve taken Lariam (mefloquine), this was the first time we had reactions. This included muscle cramps, numbness, interrupted sleep, and nightmares. We’ve since learned that our experiences were common, but that there are no good USA-available alternatives. Malaria is bad – but some people have found it better than taking Lariam. There are alternatives available in Europe.
This India trip was perhaps the best vacation we’ve had, but it’s hard to compress two weeks of India into a travelogue. Feel free to ask any questions you have.