Monthly Archives: April 2013

Celestial Wedding at Madurai

On arriving in India it was not long before we were struck by the way in which religion is interwoven into all aspects of Indian life, rather than being compartmentalised to certain days or certain events, as is so often the case in the west. Everything, in India, has a religious aspect. [The office even had to sign the lease on our house during an auspicious time slot].

The recently concluded Chithirai festival centred around the Meenakshi temple in Madurai exemplifies the central role of the gods in Indian life.

This is a 12-day festival celebrating the two gods who reside in the temple – the Goddess Meenakshi herself, who presides, and her consort Lord Sundareswarar. Meenakshi was the daughter of a Pandyan king, and is an incarnation of Parvati, sister of Lord Vishnu, and Sundareswarar is an incarnation of Lord Siva, and so the festival is also seen as bringing together Saivites and Vaishnavites – two sects of Hinduism who have not always seen eye to eye.
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The wedding is often depicted as a relief on the gopurams of a temple – our photo is taken at the Meenakshi temple itself.

The Celestial Wedding was celebrated last Tuesday. 13,000 people packed into the temple to witness the event and thousands more saw it relayed onto LED screens around the city. From the temple at Tirupparankundram (see our blog of 21st February) the deities Lord Subramaniasamy and Lord Pavalakanival Perumal came on their chariots to be witnesses to the marriage.

On the same day, Lord Kallazhagar left his temple at Alagarkoil (some 20km to the north of Madurai) riding his golden horse to join the celebrations. Legend has it that he was angered by the fact that the original wedding was solemnised before he got to Madurai, and so now his journey from Alagarkoil is timed to arrive two days later, when he is bathed in the waters of the Vaigai river to cool his anger.

This year, as so often these days, there was no water in the Vaigai, but due to the importance of the festival a certain amount was especially released from the Vaigai dam. I read in the papers in February an estimate of water needs for the district, for irrigation, industry, household use – and for Lord Kallazhagar’s sacred bath, despite the drought. Some things are important.

Mylapore

Chennai has naturally expanded over the centuries to incorporate a number of what were once small villages. Mylapore existed in fact many centuries before Chennai was founded but is now surrounded by modern high-rises and offices and cut in half by the Chennai Metro (the new elevated railway): however, it still has a traditional small-town “feel”.

Most visitors to south India pass quite quickly through Chennai – it is true that since the city has no centre, and using public transport is a bit of a challenge, seeing the sights involves a lot of driving around getting steadily hotter and more and more stressed. But for those with time and energy, a walk around Mylapore is worthwhile.

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The focus is the Kapaleeswarar temple and its tank, which were recently spruced up. The temple is dedicated to Siva in his incarnation as a peacock. The Tamil word for peacock is mayil, and puram is a word ending meaning town or village, hence “peacock-town”. [Tamil Nadu is full of -purs and -purams]. During the 7th and 8th centuries it was an important port of the Pallavas, but it must have declined after that since when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, taking over the coastal strip and developing the settlement of San Thome, they were easily able to destroy the original temple and nudge Mylapore inland where the temple was rebuilt.

The streets of Mylapore are busy in the early morning with visitors to the temple and the morning walkers: Chennaites who are retired or who don’t have walk for a living are keen on the exercise and after the morning puja take to the streets around 5am before the increase in traffic makes walking too exciting. Then in the late afternoon and evening the shops are alive with customers.

We go to Mylapore for certain key items. I buy my lungis there, for example. The main Nalli shop is in T Nagar, and you would need to go there for silks and saris, but for the simple Madras cotton lungi, Nalli’s in Mylapore has an excellent choice. I shall blog later about the lungi and its versatility. Then there are a number of good shops selling steel kitchenware including plates and tumblers, which are invaluable as they are completely indestructible. We use them on picnics, and in the hotel rooms for that necessary nightcap. When we lived in Chennai a German woman took an entire dinner service home from Chennai, all in steel, and apparently caused quite a stir in the fashionable part of Berlin!

Current thinking

Here at the cottage we’ve decided to have all the switches and plug points replaced. It seems they are 15 years old, which is apparently 10 years older than those of any of our neighbours. A few weeks ago a strange buzzing one evening was traced to the switch cover on the terrace outside the main bedroom, which was being besieged by tiny wasps or flies – I really don’t know which. Opening the plate revealed a veritable colony of these insects, happily living and reproducing in the darkness and making good use of the plastic trunking for their ideal home.

They seemed to be impervious to Baygon – rather like the larger cockroaches, in fact. You got the distinct impression that they were sniffing it up with glee like addicts of the worst kind. We tried wielding one of those electrified bats, which made very satisfying zings and sparks, but it quite quickly got bunged up with bodies which glued themselves unpleasantly to the wires and continued to fizzle even in death. It is hard, I find, to clean those bats.

After two or three days of persecution the remaining insects got the hint and decamped. But the whole event led to a closer examination of all the switches. Why, when we switched on the second from the right, did the second from the left go off? Why did this one only stay on when stuck down with sellotape? What about the curious incident of the fan in the night-time? When Thirupathi then described the gentle tingling he gets from certain switches during the monsoon season, we saw that action was needed.

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And the plug points. Some of the more pleasant yoga positions involve lying on your back and thinking about life, or death, or perhaps nothing – it is in that type of position that your attention is distracted by one of those black narrow-waisted wasps disappearing into a hole in an unused light fitting near the ceiling. And other sockets have totally lost their grip. The one into which my laptop is plugged is affected by gusts of wind, it seems. A strong draught moves the plug sufficiently to break the contact.

The TNEB are doing their best. Out here in the agricultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, the priority is for farmers and their irrigation pumps, not for little cottages. Following a power cut of 36 hours (and a panic about the contents of the freezer) we invested in the larger of the small generator sets available. This involved far more questions about electricity than I am qualified to answer. What exactly is the wattage of our water pump? [It is 1 horse-power – does that help?] I had to read the backs of all the appliances. Wow – the amount of current which a toaster and a kettle use is formidable. When the genset is running, we can maintain 3 fans, 3 light bulbs (as long as they are not more than 60W), the fridge, the laptop, and one of the kettle, toaster, mixie, washing machine or water pump. But not two at a time!

We have solar power for heating the water, which works well – though it is still quite expensive to install. But I am yet to get an answer to a question which I am unable to frame in metric terms, this being India and resolutely traditional in its measuring. How many square feet of solar panel would I need to run a one ton air conditioner? Some say even an acre of panel would be insufficient, but cannot produce the figures to back up this conjecture.

I am reminded of our electrical fun and games in Chennai. Soon after we moved into Bishop Garden we had a Saturday night power cut. Waking in a pool of sweat – this was May – and padding round the house, it was galling to hear that Peter, our guest, was clearly sleeping soundly in a/c comfort while we could not. Going into the kitchen, we found that the fridge was on but the lights were not. (It could have been worse). How odd. Sunday brought promises of a generator sooner rather than later, and then the slowly revealed joys (or rather horrors) of three phase electricity.

I still don’t understand why it is beyond the wit of man to bring the three phases into the compound, add them together, divide by three, and send them equally round the house. [My physics A-level is no help at all]. Instead, if one phase went off so did a third of the house. The fridge was on an extension lead for some time, so we could rush to plug it into an operational socket. Of course, once the generator was installed, we could relax a bit, though not totally. Sometimes it would come on when apparently all three phases were still running. Why? One trick of the EB is to split a phase, it seems, when the full current is shared between two phases – so the voltage drops below 180 which was the point at which our genset was programmed to start.

But when the genset came on, what a difference. Like the Hammer House of Horrors, the lights brightened and the fans accelerated – and the toast was brown and the kettle boiled twice as fast. It makes you realise how mollycoddled our electrical goods are back home, and exactly how much they can put up with when pushed.

The EB in the city have just as many challenges as their colleagues in the countryside. When Mr Bishop built his garden house on a 40 acre plot near the Adyar river, the electrical demand was for lighting and fans only. Later, in his garden, were built the villas of BishopGarden, each one with many more lights, and fans, and white goods. And then a/c’s became de rigueur. Now, villas are having other villas built in their gardens, and some villas are coming down and being replaced by 6 storey blocks of flats, each with many more …….. No wonder the power grid is under a strain. It is a marvel that it works at all.

… or whether the weather be hot …

Today (April 17th) is the day when the sun passes directly overhead our cottage in the south of Tamil Nadu. This is according to my Table of the Declination of the Sun, which I downloaded from http://www.starpath.com. We are situated 10 degrees north of the equator, so today at solar noon (which is around twenty past twelve Indian time) there will be no shadows cast. And from tomorrow the sun starts to shine on the back of the cottage and the front terrace gets a little bit of shade.

It is already hot. The drought conditions due to the deficient 2012 monsoon have left the countryside parched with less than a third of the agricultural land being used. Water “arguments”, shall we say, between the southern states, are getting hotter too. Many of Tamil Nadu’s key rivers for irrigation rise in Kerala or Karnataka, and the water sharing agreements are based on ancient formulae calculated when the demands of each state were quite different.

The dam in front of the cottage is rapidly emptying. The water is piped to Dindigul for drinking purposes, and water rationing has been in place there for some time. In Chennai too the city authorities are re-opening the deep wells to the south of the city which were last used during the drought years of 2003 and 2004. We were living in Chennai at that time, and had no running water to the house for 3 years! I bought a tanker of water every 2 weeks for household use.

Mid-April is the start of the Tamil month of Chittirai, followed by Vaikaci – the two hottest months of the year when the temperature on the plains during the first two weeks of May can get into the low to mid 40s. This is not as hot as a Delhi summer, but quite enough! May is the month when the hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikanal are crowded with people fleeing the heat, and I will blog later about the flower show at Kodai.

Naturally, the sun passes back overhead at some stage – in fact towards the end of August – but it is not nearly so hot. The monsoon has started by then along the west coast and the clouds spill over the mountains into Tamil Nadu – sometimes with rain, though not always – giving welcome shade. It is a very pleasant time to visit if you can’t make the winter season from December to March.

On the streets of Chennai

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The Chennai traffic police reckon that there are 18 different types of conveyance using the roads. This partly accounts for the congestion and rather stop/start style of driving. I have so far seen the following road users:

1.         The Urban Cow. More noticeable at night, they stroll around the streets rummaging in rubbish bins. They all seem to belong to someone, and seem to be able to navigate the streets to and from home. Like all other traffic users, they change lanes without signalling.

2.         Bullock carts. Usually 4 wheel carts for heavy goods. The horns of the beast are often painted red or green, and decorated on the tips with bells.

3.         Horses. We have men on horses for two main reasons: either it is a groom going to a wedding, such as the one at the hotel last Sunday, or the complete opposite, a lad taking horse down to the beach to offer rides where they gallop bareback up and down the sand trying to whip up custom. In the first case, the procession goes at walking pace – the wedding we saw was preceded by the Jaleb Punjab Band – “full brass band and orchestra” – who gave quantity of sound in preference to quality, then male relatives dancing, the groom on horseback, sitting on red and gold cloth and shaded by a red and gold umbrella, followed by female relatives dancing with in this case torches made of fluorescent tubes tied to sticks, all linked together with a cable to a car battery, so they couldn’t move far apart.

4.         Horse drawn carriages. These seem to be reserved for weddings, though there are some horse buggies around. I saw a wonderful old photo of a woman’s grandparents in their phaeton, with two grooms and two running footmen, up in the hills. It was taken on the last occasion the carriage was used before the car arrived.

5.         Pedestrians. The pavements are not people-friendly at all, and in places disappear completely. Where they do exist, they are a suitable site for beggars; salesmen; stalls selling tea and coffee, sugar cane juice, and snacks; shoe polishers and repairers; cows; and of course parking.</pIMG_9156

6.         Men pulling and pushing things. 2, 3 and 4 wheel carts abound. I have seen big wooden barrows like the market porters use, a sort of giant supermarket trolley, 4 wheel carts with a man harnessed rather than a bullock – any combination you can imagine.

7.         Bicycles. A popular form of transport, though we never had the courage to get ours out of the drive. Driving consists of going for the smallest advantage, turning across the oncoming traffic, taking traffic lights and one way signs as merely advisory – and bikes are way down the pecking order only ahead of pedestrians. Bikes are designed for 2 people – one on the rack – and sometimes 3. Single occupancy bikes are a waste of an opportunity to transport someone else.

8.         Other pedal driven things. The best is the cycle rickshaw, which takes two in comfort unless you have a western-sized bum. It is tricycle based. There is a cargo equivalent, where the seats are replaced by a flat wooden platform. I have also seen tricycles with two wheels at the front, and hand pedalled invalid carriages.

9.         The auto rickshaw. This is a ubiquitous three-wheeler which is the main form of transport. It seats two in comfort behind the driver – which means that many more than this can pile in in practice. We saw 7 students get out of one outside the university – apparently they were not going for any records – and one of Eunice’s staff told us that the ones which do the school run have an extra shelf seat for the little ones, and by hanging the school bags outside can take up to 15 kids. If you see what looks like a motorised Xmas tree, take care. It has a little 2 stroke engine, but can get up to quite a speed. I took one the other day which had a leather interior and a 4 speaker Pioneer stereo system, which took me down the main drag at 50 kph. Of course the main disadvantage is that you are seated exactly at the level of the average bus exhaust.

            The auto rickshaw has two variations. In one, the seat area is converted into a van, which is amazingly useful for the small alleys, and the other where it is converted to take an articulated 2 wheel trailer.

10.       Motorised two and three wheelers. There are so many varieties of these. Ordinary scooters and motor bikes are very common and thank goodness here in the south that their owners don’t trade them in for cars. The scooter was once advertised by Government as an ideal family vehicle, and a good reason to limit your family to 4. The elder child sits in front of dad, who naturally drives, and the baby is held by mum who sits side-saddle on the back. I am amazed that all the trailing bits of sari and scarf don’t get tangled in the wheels more often, though they all have sari guards fitted. Then there are the pedal vehicles which have been motorised, like the fish carts (which carried the fish from the beach in the old days). The driver sits high off the ground, and can supplement the motor with pedalling when the going gets tough. These can also become people carriers, with the addition of seats and maybe a roof. I saw one with 7 school kids in the other day.

11.       Cars. All shapes and sizes. The classic vehicle is of course the famous Hindustan Ambassador, which was a Morris Oxford in earlier life. Bench seats, with a certain style. You can get air conditioned ones too. It is considered bad form to actually bump into another vehicle (although bikes don’t count much) so despite the total lack of lane discipline and much jockeying for pole position at the lights, there are few scrapes. Crossing the central white line to gain a few yards advantage, irrespective of oncoming traffic, is normal. 

12.       Vans, lorries and buses. The buses are the kings of the road, with a ground clearance of about 2 feet so you need to be pretty fit to get on board. They tank down the road with horns blaring, and people hop off and on wherever they can – particularly at the traffic lights, when they get off in the middle of the road and then have to run the gauntlet of all the traffic filtering left. Mind you, horns are used by everyone all the time. It is more to make a noise to let people know you are there, as it has no discernible impact on the way people actually drive. They even hoot when stopped at the lights.

I think that’s more than 18, if you break down the sub-groups. But I am sure that there will be more weird and wonderful road experiences just around the next corner – after all, this is just Chennai city!

To the beach!

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The Marina Beach in Chennai is described as the largest urban or city beach in India, and the second largest in the world (but without mentioning which is the largest). It stretches between the mouths of the two rivers crossing the city, the Cooum to the north and the Adyar to the south. Over 100 years ago the then Governor, Grant Duff, decided that the stretch behind the beach would be laid out as a promenade, and subsequent harbour work has encouraged the sand to accumulate. The beach is now 300 to 400 metres wide from road to sea, and about 13 km long.

 Sunday evening is the time to visit, when an estimated 50,000 Chennaites come down to the sea to escape the heat and the mosquitoes. The beach is full of vendors – food, drinks and souvenirs; you can go horse-riding, there are informal cricket pitches everywhere; small fairground rides are set out. People come with banana leaf offerings and make puja at the water’s edge, some daring ones splash around in the waves. Although the sun is setting behind the city, the pink afterglow is picked up by the clouds and carried right round to the eastern horizon.

Everyone is in a good mood, and this is the best way to meet people of all descriptions on neutral territory, as it were. European visitors are rare, and it is advisable to make sure your camera is fully charged since everyone wants a photo with you, of you and of themselves.

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Swimming is not advisable. There is a strong undertow and treacherous sideways currents. The occasional rogue wave takes people unawares, and there are frequent accidents. It still makes our blood curdle when we think of the tsunami in 2004. This hit the beach on Boxing Day Sunday, at 8.40 in the morning. The waves crossed the entire width of the sand, then the parking area, then the promenade, then the road, and into the grounds of the police headquarters. But the majority of the morning walkers had finished and gone home; and few cricketers had yet arrived. 200 people were swept away, which is a tragedy, but imagine the disaster had the wave struck that evening.

Vellore

We have a particular liking for the small temple inside the fort at Vellore, which is not on the usual tour circuit of Tamil Nadu. The temple compound contains a small mandapam, or hall, with some of the finest stone carving we have seen. The fort was occupied by the British for two centuries and for much of that time the temple was de-sanctified and used as an arsenal – hence the temple is unimproved and the carving largely undamaged.

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The carvings range from the sacred to the profane to the amusing. One large block has a very small gecko on it in relief – implying the painstaking removal of a huge layer of extraneous stone (like the Greek herm). Another decorative panel has an elephant and a bull – which share a head. Somehow the elephant’s tusks become the bull’s ears. The platform on which the VIPs sat rides on a turtle, albeit a very flat one! The main columns are beautifully carved with riders on horses and mythical beasts, fighting wild animals.

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All of this is done in granite, not the easiest rock to carve. In fact the entire fort is made of granite from the surrounding hills. Vellore fort was built in 1566 by the Vijayanagara Empire, fell into the hands of the Marathas, then the Mughals, and then the British from 1760. The first mutiny against the British in India happened at Vellore in 1806. The fort is now managed as a historic monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Vellore can be visited easily in a day trip from Chennai, perhaps combined with Kanchipuram, famous for temples and silk-weaving.