In the last 20 years, ever since the then Prime Minister, Atul Bihari Vajpayee, announced his Golden Quadrilateral Initiative, India’s main roads have undergone an amazing transformation, greatly reducing the time it takes to travel between major cities. Now, even relatively small cities are being connected by smart new highways. This is a great advantage for those wanting to travel quickly over long distances but it comes at a price. In the South at least, vast numbers of old trees have been cut down to build these broad new roads. Air-conditioned cars and current climate conditions mean that these trees will never be replaced.
Sometimes, however, there are benefits to travelling slowly. Our travels along some of the less busy roads, which are often still lined with shady trees, have led to some wonderful discoveries.
There is lovely road from Chettinad to Dindigul where, in January, one is travelling alongside the thousands of pilgrims who are making their way barefoot to the great temple at Palani. In Tamil Nadu this is the contemporary equivalent of the Canterbury pilgrims with whole families or communities setting out to make their annual visit to the shrine, sleeping in coconut plantations along the way or, if they are wealthy enough, hiring a house for the night. Food is provided by local benefactors who, unable to make the journey themselves, hope for blessings through their benevolence.
On the same road there is a community of rope makers who make rope from coir (coconut husk). The whole village buzzes with the sound of the machinery. It seems that everyone in the community takes part with the women operating the wheel and walking backwards to spin the rope and the men stacking and loading the finished product. They happily welcome you to take photos but carry on working steadily as you do.
Recently while travelling to visit a temple in Gangakondacholapuram (another blog to follow on this gem of a temple) we came across an area of brickworks. We have frequently seen the chimneys and brick fields but this was the first time we had encountered a mass firing of bricks in progress. A large gang of workers were building a huge pyre of bricks to fire them. The bricks were piled up leaving with interior spaces into which kindling was inserted. The whole structure was then covered in mud and set alight.
On another trip off the beaten track in a search for a bird sanctuary (no water, no birds) we did find this wonderful little local temple as well as fields of chillis drying in the sun.
Some of our best sightings of birds come on these trips too. These black ibis are an unusual sight -only the second time I can remember seeing them in 20 years of travelling in South India.
If you want to see the real India in all its glorious colours then leave the highways.