Monthly Archives: June 2013

St Mary’s in the Fort

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From its founding to the present day, Madras has been governed from the Fort. There was attempt a few years ago to build a brand new Secretariat building on a large site close by, but that fell foul of political wrangling and the building is now to be a hospital instead. So the Chief Minister’s office is still inside Fort St George, built by the British East India Company and opened on St George’s Day, 1644.

Along with offices from which the Madras Presidency was originally governed, and accommodation for the British officers and men, the Company built a church dedicated to St Mary. As was usual at the time, the engineer/architect was a military man, and the church has very thick walls so it can be used to store ammunition in times of crisis.

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St Mary’s describes itself as “the oldest church east of the Suez”. It was consecrated in 1680 and has been in continuous use since then by the Anglican community of the Church of South India. Inside is cool and surprisingly light; the floor is of large flagstones and the pews are dark wood.

Many famous people are buried at St Mary’s, though as the site is cramped it is only the earliest tombs which are actually at the church. There is a large graveyard on the way to Egmore station which contains many more, including the Commonwealth War Grave. And the church register records names from history.

In fact the first marriage to be recorded was that of Elihu Yale in 1680 itself. Yale went on to become the second Governor of Madras from 1687 to 1692 at which time he was relieved of his post due to excessive profiteering. Some of the profits later went to assist the new Collegiate School of Connecticut in the Colony of New Haven – Yale’s grandmother’s second husband was an early governor of New Haven – and that in due time became Yale College.

Another famous name linked to St Mary’s is that of Robert Clive – “Clive of India” – who was married there in 1753 at the end of his first trip to India. He had just become renowned through his defence of the fort of Arcot with a few hundred men against several thousand troops of Chanda Sahib.

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Visiting St Mary’s is an atmospheric step back in time and can be combined with a visit to the Fort Museum. Photos are problematic at the moment since it is covered in scaffolding.

Flower power

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Flowers are an incredibly important part of South Indian life. Gods and Goddesses are garlanded as part of their ritual worship; brides and grooms are laden with garlands so heavy that the bride can scarcely lift her head; most women weave a string of jasmine into their hair each morning. Rooms hired for weddings and other functions are intricately decorated with flowers and palm leaves – houses too. Even cows and bullocks are decorated with marigolds at the time of Pongal.

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There is therefore a huge industry associated with flowers. Down the road from our cottage a couple grow jasmine on 20 or so bushes. The buds are picked in the early morning and taken to a local buyer who fills wicker baskets of buds from a number of growers. These are trucked to central markets and from there distributed to shops and homes.

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We’ve been taking some photos at the central flower market in Chennai, at Koyambedu. Flowers here are sold by the kilo – which is a lot of petal! – and you can also buy ready-made garlands. Women outside plait the jasmine with three thin lengths of thread, ready for the hair.

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I hope you enjoy the photos. Here are two more of our friend Maya’s wedding – you can see what fabulous garlands and hair decorations she was wearing!

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The Andaman Islands (2)

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The ocean around the Andaman islands is one of those blue colours which you get in tourist brochures and which makes you wonder how much the photo was tinted! Not so – the blue is intense and true, arising from white coral sand reflecting a blue sky through relatively shallow unpolluted water.

People have come here for diving for many years, despite the difficulties in getting here: and I see that recently the surfers have started to eye up the Andamans and their waves. It is nearly 900 miles from Chennai to Port Blair, and there’s nothing to the south-west except Antarctica, so the waves have a chance of building up.

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We went there for a week’s relaxation and bird-watching. I had marked off in the bird book the endemic species and in 6 days we managed to see 2! We weren’t straining ourselves! Many birds could be found around the lodge where we were staying, and could be viewed from the veranda with binoculars in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other, which is infinitely preferable to lying face downwards in a mosquito-infested swamp or freezing to death on a Scottish moor.
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The resort – Barefoot at Havelock – was on Havelock Island, which is one of the few islands open to tourism, and had a resident elephant which swam each day off the beach. The elephant had been employed by loggers when it was younger, and the animals were persuaded to swim from one island to another following the work teams. However Havelock was not completely logged in earlier centuries and we were stunned by the height and variety of the trees.

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One photo perhaps needs explaining – the tiny sand crabs created the most complex designs we have ever seen. Twice a day – between the tides!

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All up in the air

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Chennai and then on to the cottage by car. It is all so easy – Emirates have two flights a day from Glasgow to Dubai, and then three a day from Dubai to Chennai. No need to transit Heathrow or Mumbai or Delhi – a great advantage, especially in the winter months.

I won’t go into the travails of Air India which are well-reported – the normal ones of a nationalised industry anywhere. But shortly after we arrived in Chennai private airlines were allowed to operate and one or two of them are doing very well, providing some spur to the national airline to pull its socks up. The train journey from Chennai to Delhi may be cheap, and have its romantic side, but a 3 hour flight is much better if time is pressing.

Perhaps it is worth reminding people how big India actually is, and that it takes three hours or more for some internal flights. I was told early on that if you overlaid a map of India onto a map of Europe, then Delhi would be roughly over Copenhagen and Chennai over Rome. So a two week holiday to “do” India is as bad as trying to “do” Europe in the same time!

Anyway, returning to the air. While walking one evening with a friend I asked him to remind me of a story he had told me many years ago about flying to Calcutta on the planes which carried the mail. My memory being notoriously faulty, I hope I now have the basic facts right.

When the war ended, a number of Dakota aircraft from the American air force were left behind in Calcutta, as no longer needed and not worth shipping home. An entrepreneur saw an opportunity and acquired some of them to set up an overnight post and passenger service linking the four big cities – Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras. The town of Nagpur was chosen as the central hub. The service started in 1950 – flights left the four cities, all met up in Nagpur, passengers and mail were shuffled round, and they all took off again.

My friend was working in those days for a company in Calcutta but his family was in Madras. The train journey even now between Chennai and Kolkata takes 28 to 30 hours – then it was longer – and the scheduled daytime flights were expensive. You could take the mail plane for much less. He remembers taking off from Madras in the late evening and landing in Nagpur around midnight. While the mail was sorted out, the passengers waited on the apron and could have fried eggs, for some reason. Smoking in the cabin was not allowed (I imagine due to the mail on board) but if you knew the pilot, which he did, you could go into the cockpit and have a cigarette there!

I idly googled Nagpur and Airmail, and discovered an article from the Times of India saying that the night airmail service had been revived in 2009 – still using Nagpur as the hub – but it stopped again in 2010. What a shame, especially since India had seen the world’s first official airmail flight on February 18th, 1911, when a French pilot carried 6,500 letters from Allahabad to Naini, in what were then the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.

The Andaman Islands (1)

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The Andaman and Nicobar Island chain stretches from just above the northern tip of Indonesia (Banda Aceh – where the 2004 tsunami originated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog) to south-west of Rangoon, now Yangon. The Andamans can be visited from Chennai or Kolkata, but the Nicobars are off-limits to tourists due to the Stone Age tribal communities which still live there – you may remember seeing aerial footage of spear-shaking men (on North Sentinel Island) trying to scare off a military helicopter which was checking up on their island post-tsunami.

In passing, one of the groups which do communicate now and again with anthropologists explained that they survived the tsunami since they recognised the animal behaviour and followed them as they fled inland. This is perhaps an ancient memory of previous tsunamis passed down through the generations, in stark contrast to the modern folk near Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India who went out onto the seabed to collect stranded fish as the first wave retreated and were caught and killed by the second.

The Andamans appear in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, where a mysterious death occurs at Pondicherry Lodge and Sherlock Holmes traces the story back to an Englishman and three Sikh accomplices who stole a fortune in Agra, were caught, and sentenced to penal servitude for life in the islands. An Andamanese, armed with a blowpipe and deadly poisonous darts, is the loyal servant of the Englishman, Small, who is trying to regain the treasure.

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The British use of islands as jails is well-known all over the world. St Helena, for the Boer prisoners of war; Seychelles for exiles and political prisoners, such as Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda and Archbishop Makarios; and Port Blair for those who fell foul of British rule in India. We have friends in Chennai who, as Indian freedom fighters, were sent to Port Blair and the notorious Cellular Jail.

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We visited in 2006 – here are a few photos of the jail – and one surprise for me was to learn that during the Second World War the Andamans were occupied by the Japanese. The Cellular Jail is now a national monument, and among the exhibits are souvenirs of the occupation – a newspaper advertising lessons in conversational Japanese, for example, and currency notes – and pictures of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was controversially allied with the Japanese, raising the Indian flag of Independence for the first time on Indian soil.

Rain and water

The newspapers are reporting that the monsoon has arrived dead on time – on June 1st it arrived at Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin – the Land’s End of India where “the three oceans meet”, according to the tourist literature. Wikipedia unkindly points out that this is inaccurate, and that Kanyakumari only actually borders the Laccadive Sea – not the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal as well. And to add insult to injury, Kanyakumari is not the most southerly point of India, merely the most southerly point of the Indian mainland. Indira Point is much further south, but since this lies at the tip of the Nicobar Islands (just across the water from Banda Aceh, where the 2004 tsunami began), and since the Nicobars are off limits to visitors due to the Stone Age tribes who still live there, Kanyakumari is the furthest south most of us are likely to get.

Anyway – the monsoon has arrived on time and is now working its way up the west coast. Alexander Frater’s book Chasing the Monsoon describes really well the joy and relief felt by Indians as the rain arrives and the atrocious heat of May is washed away.

Not in Tamil Nadu. All we get is the cloud which spills over the Western Ghats, accompanied by the odd shower, certainly not monsoonal torrents. Not many people realise this. My Delhi colleagues used to say “bet you’re glad the monsoon has arrived” and were amazed when I said “not in Chennai. We need to wait until November for our monsoon rain!”

But the rivers, lakes and tanks of Tamil Nadu will now start filling up, slowly but surely, as the water comes across the borders from Kerala, Andhra and Karnataka. This is assuming, of course, that the water is allowed to come. The Cauvery River Tribunal, for example, has been sitting for decades to try to recalculate what the shares of the river’s water should be for each State, but every time there is a drought (like early this year) the farmers try to stop the dams being opened to feed the canals leading into Tamil Nadu. Since this can include suicides – usually jumping off the dam into the water coming out of the sluices – it is a serious matter.

I hope that when I get back to our cottage in 2 weeks time the river which fills our lake will be showing a little movement. The lake is now at its lowest and the local government are busy digging out 50 years of silt – excellent for the plantations, so the local farmers are queuing up to buy as many loads as they can manage.

A photo of an empty lake is a bit boring, so here is one which I took earlier, as they say.

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Tamil landscapes

The Indian peninsula, south of the great alluvial plains of the Ganges, is immensely old. It started off as part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland, which broke into several pieces – modern-day Australia, southern Africa, Madagascar, southern India – with a few crumbs left over which formed the granitic group of the Seychelles. What is now southern India moved north-eastwards and bashed into the Eurasian plate, throwing up the Himalayas – a process which is still continuing. As it moved it passed over a volcanic hotspot (where Reunion Island is today), and lava intruded into the older rocks.

In the north-western part of the Deccan these lava flows are some 2km thick, and today cover an area of around 500,000 square kilometres. These are the Deccan Traps, from the Icelandic word for step, “trappa”, referring to the stepped nature of the terrain as the lava is well-layered.

I must admit this was news to me. The Deccan was a dry hostile environment which for centuries discouraged people of the north from moving southwards. Alexander the Great came to northern India at the same time that Arab sea-farers were starting to trade out of ports close to Kochi and Mahabalipuram, but there was little or no connection between north and south within India. I had always thought that the Deccan was in effect a trap for unwary travellers!

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The photograph is of the temple and fort at Namakkal.

The western edge of the peninsula, it is thought, was lifted up vertically by great stresses as the peninsula moved north-eastwards, but the underlying rocks are still granitic in type. These are now the western Ghats – the word “ghat”, of course, means a flight of steps normally leading down into a river, and it has been transferred to steep mountains rising from the plains, often in a series of steps. The ghats themselves rise to over 8000 feet (2500 metres) and are deeply dissected by river valleys. The hills plunge down into a rich red soil and the rock reappears now and again at intervals as isolated mountains and hills: some are unbroken monoliths as at Namakkal, Dindigul and Trichy; some are piles of weathered rocks heaped on top of each other to substantial heights, as at Gingee. Nearer the coast, the land gets drier and less fertile and you find salt pans and prawn hatcheries, for example, and the rise and fall of sea-levels has produced a number of layers of differing sediments.

One of the most curious links between geology and history is the rock known as Charnockite. In 1892, a geologist who was studying the tombstone of an East India Company administrator in St John’s churchyard, Calcutta, recognised that this was a hitherto undescribed type of granitic rock. The tombstone was traced to a quarry on St Thomas Mount in Chennai, but the rock is found in other parts of south India – particularly the Nilgiris – and in Sri Lanka, where it forms most of the central mountains. Why someone went to the trouble 200 years earlier to ship this rock over 1000 miles to make a tombstone, we shall never know. But it still marks the grave of Job Charnock, who died in 1692 and for over 300 years has been regarded as the “founder” of Calcutta.

Visitors to Tamil Nadu, therefore, are presented with an ancient and fascinating landscape which may also remind them of southern Africa and Australia, in form, colour and vegetation.