Monthly Archives: February 2013

A mile high in the Nilgiris

ImageI am sitting on the edge of a cliff in a gazebo attached to a Tamil Nadu Forest Department Bungalow at a place called Penstock, near Manjoor in the Nilgiri Hills, part of the Western Ghats. The sun is setting behind the hills to my right and I am looking south across a deep valley to a range of hills covered with shola forest and grassland – some of the unique environment of Nilgiri Hills. The Toda tribespeople say that the outline of these hilltops in the sunset resembles a sleeping lady with her arms folded over her stomach. And they do.

 

Just behind me and under the ridge is the Penstock (or pipeline system for the hydro-electric scheme) from which the area takes its name. 700 metres below me in the valley is the settlement of Geddai where a nature camp is taking place in which we are participating this weekend. More on that in a future blog.

 

There is an eagle soaring overhead and the monkeys are playing below me and keeping an eye out for scraps. The Police Officer whose duty is to guard access to the hydro-electric pipeline told us last night that during his posting here he has seen leopard and panther as well as sloth bear.

 

Gradually the lights are coming on across the valley. Spangled across the sleeping lady opposite there are three tiny villages with about 6 lights between them.

 

So lovely is this place that there seem to be more blogs about it than any other spot I have searched on in Tamil Nadu. 

 

And yes – the bungalow is 1610 metres above sea-level, which is one mile high.

Tirupparankunram – not quite a holy mountain but certainly a holy mount

The plains of Tamil Nadu are scattered with imposing granite outcrops, many of them topped by temples or forts or both. But even by local standards the hill at Tirupparankunram is impressive, rising sheer from the plain on two sides. It is sacred not only to Hindus but also to Muslims and, here at least, both religions seem to co-exist peacefully and respectfully. 

Its religious associations go back many centuries as inscriptions on the rocks testify. Shortly after we visited, two enterprising young archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India found a previously unrecorded inscription near one of the tanks on the hillside which has been ascribed by experts to either Hindus or Jains from about 2nd Century BC.

At the foot of the rock is a cave temple, sacred to Murugan, one of the sons of Shiva. The original temple dates from the 7th century but now has an impressive doorway with an imposing gopuram and a pillared mandapam, all dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.  Here was a stone statue now recognisable to me as Tirumalai Nayak, one of the 17th century rulers of Madurai whose image can also be seen at the Madurai Meenakshi temple and at the nearby temple of Alagar Koil. 

But this hill is also sacred to Muslims as it is the site of the Dargah, or tomb, of Sikander Shah, the last Madurai sultan 1372 -1379, who was killed there in a battle against the Vijayanagara army. I haven’t, so far, been able so far to find out very much more about Sikander Shah or why he subsequently became a Muslim saint (another thing for the to-do list), but a walk up to his tomb is well worth the effort. The steps are now a little delapidated, but quite manageable – partly made out of large granite slabs and partly cut into the bare rock.

On the day we visited there was a regular stream of pilgrims.  It was strange to find myself replacing the traditional Tamil greeting “Vanakkam” with “Salaam Alaikum” as we passed groups descending. Just as I was feeling the heat and the steepness of the climb on the last section, an elderly lady, barefoot and looking very far from fit and healthy, was making her way down accompanied by two younger men. It was clear what an effort she had made to visit the shrine so I stopped feeling sorry for myself and pressed on. 

We stopped just before the summit to admire the view and enjoy the breeze. Alas the surrounding tanks were very empty in this season of drought.  Finally you reach the mausoleum of Sikander Shah placed in a small cave with a room in front. It was remarkably reminiscent of the last Sufi shrine I visited, that of Sidi Ali Azuz, on the Imagemountain above Zaghouan in Tunisia.

Temples, great and small

Image

Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, their brightly painted gopurams – many-layered towers over the doorways, and now and again over the main sanctum – thrusting upwards from the plains. It is interesting to imagine a time when these were the highest points in an otherwise fairly featureless landscape. Indeed, when the Great Trigonometrical Survey reached Tanjore in the 1820s, the surveyors obtained permission from the priests of the important temple there to haul their measuring instruments up to the top of the gopuram. John Keay’s entertaining book, The Great Arc, describes the episode (which nearly ended in disaster) well.

But our friend Pradeep Chakravarthy has written a book A Road Less Travelled [ISBN 978-81-8379-557-9] about the temples which are not so famous, but which are both historically and architecturally interesting. Many of them are in small villages in the by-roads of Tamil Nadu – roads which are themselves worth travelling to enjoy the tranquillity of rural south India. Temples are grouped by location and each chapter is introduced by a section on the history of the region and the rulers in whose period the temples were built.

Each temple is not only lovingly described but also, wherever relevant, it is linked to its appearance in Tamil literature. The temple inscriptions, a critically important historical recors of Tamil Nadu, are explained. We benefit from Pradeep’s profound knowledge and appreciation of the history and literature of his native state.

In the bleak? mid-winter

“fiery winds made moan!”. As a hot strong dry wind whistled around the cottage the other afternoon, I remarked on it to Thirupathi, who said “well, it is winter”. And of course mid-February is about the time when Tamils reckon that early winter (the months of Maarkali and Thai) gives way to late winter (the months of Maasi and Pankuni).

Here on the central plains of Tamil Nadu, winter is characterised mainly by pleasant temperatures and dryness. Apart from the very rare and welcome shower (like this morning), the bulk of the rain fell during the retreating monsoon in October and November, and we shan’t see much more until July, when the odd shower might spill over the edge of the Western Ghats from Kerala. I’ll blog another time about the current water crisis, and the increasingly acerbic water wars between the south Indian states.

Reports from up north tell a different story. January and February around Delhi are characterised by temperatures close to freezing, and by fog (and its bad brother, smog). This is the time when flights in and out of Delhi are regularly delayed.

Fog also affects the railways. The Hindu reported a few weeks ago on a particularly bad weekend for the north Indian railway system, when all trains were delayed and some were cancelled. A few were reduced to travelling at 9km per hour, and one in particular caught my eye. The Express from Delhi to Vadodara, I think it was, is scheduled to make the journey in 23½ hours. At the time of reporting that weekend, it had been on the way for 115 hours 24 minutes, and had not yet arrived.

Unfortunately the following day’s Hindu failed to follow up this fascinating story. I wonder did it ever get there?

Tailored Eco-Tours

February 9/10 2013

This is a “no moon” weekend and, as such, a very auspicious date. On Sunday, up in Allahabad, it is the main bathing day for the Maha Kumbh Mela and of course it is also Chinese New Year. I am sure this is not a coincidence. And on Saturday and Sunday quite a few large groups were gathered at the Sadaiyandy Temple down the road (more on that in another blog) together with the goats to be sacrificed and then stewed. But for us, last night and the previous two have been fabulous for star-gazing. There was no cloud cover at all, and, while we are not in an official “dark sky” area such as they have in Galloway in south-west Scotland, we have very little light pollution here.

I downloaded the star maps for our latitude and longitude for 9pm and 4am from an excellent free…

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Tailored Eco-Tours

We could be spending the winter in Britain where the weather is foul but where we have electricity 24 hours a day and TV at the press of a switch. Instead we have chosen to spend our time in Tamil Nadu. Tourists to India do make it to Tamil Nadu but usually only after they have done the golden triangle – of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – and have experienced the beaches of Goa and the Kerala backwaters.

But we’ve been fortunate. We lived in Tamil Nadu for nearly 6 years while I was working here, and have been coming back regularly for short or, in Phil’s case, longer visits in the 6 years since then. The magic we discovered in our very first visit has not worn off. This year for the first time I am able to spend 3 months here, based at the cottage which is owned…

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Heavens Above

February 9/10 2013

This is a “no moon” weekend and, as such, a very auspicious date. On Sunday, up in Allahabad, it is the main bathing day for the Maha Kumbh Mela and of course it is also Chinese New Year. I am sure this is not a coincidence. And on Saturday and Sunday quite a few large groups were gathered at the Sadaiyandy Temple down the road (more on that in another blog) together with the goats to be sacrificed and then stewed. But for us, last night and the previous two have been fabulous for star-gazing. There was no cloud cover at all, and, while we are not in an official “dark sky” area such as they have in Galloway in south-west Scotland, we have very little light pollution here.

I downloaded the star maps for our latitude and longitude for 9pm and 4am from an excellent free site http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/. By 9pm we had finished dinner on the roof with our friends from Bangalore, and then, with the map as reference we tried to pick out the major constellations. Luckily Orion was directly overhead in the dead centre of the celestial bowl and we could take lines from his sword, or belt, or shoulders and make some semi-informed guesses. Jupiter was clearly visible and Uranus was setting to the west. At 4am to our delight the Southern Cross was clear as a bell due south of us and Saturn was coming into view over the mountainside to our east. Then at 5, as the call to prayer came from the mosque across the lake, the sky started to lighten and by 6 the stars were all but gone.

It was cool on the roof before dawn. But this is not the real chill of northern India at this time of the year, or of the hill stations. This is the clammy chill you get when the temperature drops to around 19 degrees but the humidity is so high that, just before dawn, a light dew falls.

Phil