Along the way

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.

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The pilgrims being sent off from Devakottai

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.

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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.

 

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If you want to see the real India in all its glorious colours then leave the highways.

 

 

 

A Trip to Adam’s Bridge

 

Pamban Island is the closest point to Sri Lanka in the Indian mainland. It is “connected” by Adam’s Bridge, a chain of shoals some 40km long and reputed to never be more than 1m deep.    It was at Rameswaram on Pamban Island that Lord Ram worshipped Siva on his return from Lanka where he had killed the demon king, Ravanna.    Most tourists who come here are Hindus as this is one of 4 modern holy sites which Hindus should visit in their lifetime in order to be released from the cycle of birth and death.

But there is much to interest the non-Hindu as well.

The island is joined to the mainland by the Annai Indira Gandhi Road Bridge from which magnificent views of the 105-year old Pamban Rail Bridge can be enjoyed. The bridge is more than 2km long with 140 spans and opens to allow the passage of boats and ferries. It was built in the early 20th century.  It is currently closed for some much-needed repairs.

At the eastern end of the bridge is a small but lively fishing settlement which is a haven from Brahminy Kites seeking easy pickings from the drying fish.

 

As well as its significance as pilgrimage site, the Ramanatha temple in Rameswaram is famous for its magnificent colonnaded Eastern corridor, 220m long.   It is also great for the bustle of pilgrims queuing up to be doused in a water from the 22 tanks and water sources (thirthas) in the temple.   Before you enter the temple take a walk along the shore where you will see the devotees taking their preliminary dip in the Bay of Bengal.

While in Rameswaram, a visit to Dhanushkodi is a must.   This is the remains of a once thriving town where the train connected with the ferry to Sri Lanka.  Tragically, the whole town was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964 which also washed away a train with 115 passengers.  The town was then abandoned but the ghostly remnants remain including houses, church and railway station.

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Until recently, Dhanushkodi could only be reached by jeep across the sand but a road has now been built and the ruins are gradually being hidden by stands selling tourist goods.  One assumes that there must be a market for these among the coachloads of Indian tourists.  The drive out from Rameswaram is still worthwhile as the narrow strip of land offers views of the sandbanks with excellent birdlife including flamingos.

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The road takes you all the way to the most easterly point where some still defy the ban on swimming to take yet another dip in the Bay of Bengal.

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Acknowledgements:

Blue Guide to South India by George Michel

 

Around the Kamarajar Sagar Dam

 

My morning walk takes me around “the lake”.    Nestling at the foot of the Palani Hills, Kamarajar Sagar Dam provides part of the water supply for the nearby town of Dindigul.    During the rainy season which is normally November and December the lake is filled from two rivers descending from the hills.    In good years the lake fills and the dam overflows.  That hasn’t happened for a while.

The lake is a paradise for birds, some resident including egrets, cormorants and spot-billed ducks and some occasional visitors including several varieties of stork the most striking of which is the painted stork.     Most mornings I can expect to see kingfishers, Indian rollers, bee-eaters, drongos, bulbuls, parakeets but these are just a few of the species around.   Then there are always the flocks of peacocks and hens, India’s national bird.

 

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At the southern end of the lake a grove of large native trees is the home to a colony of fruit bats.   These wonderful animals are becoming increasingly rare as the large trees they need for roosting disappear but the valley is fortunate to host a large colony.    In the months of July and August they can be seen in their hundreds in the evening sky heading to the mango and orange groves in the hills.

As well as enjoying the birds, a morning walk is also a good way to see how people live here.   Fishermen in coracles are catching the fish with which the lake has been stocked.  As the lake dried up almost completely last year it had to be restocked and fishing is still limited to a couple of days a week.

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Coracles – no fishing this morning

A small fish market materialises next to the pump-house when the catch is landed.    On the west side of the lake are paddy fields which are irrigated by an ancient canal system which takes water from the rivers before they enter the lake.   Last year there was no paddy because of drought but this year there seems to have been a good crop.   Towards the north end as the valley narrows there are large coconut and mango plantations.

Every day goatherds bring their flocks to graze on whatever grass they can find. Each afternoon Thomas can be seen with his herd of buffalo.  This year he says grazing is difficult and his milk yield is greatly reduced.

It wouldn’t be South India if there wasn’t a religious aspect as well.   Around the lake there are a number of sacred groves where local people find spiritual sustenance in nature.  It could be a simple shrine at the foot of a large tree or a small unspoilt area of forest where there are small temples which have been there for many years.

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A shrine underneath an old tree

The largest is now a full-scale temple to Sadayandi who seems to be a local incarnation of Siva.   This is now the location for many festivities including weddings and ceremonies to celebrate a child’s first haircut at the age of about 2 years old.

Every morning there is something different to enjoy.   For example the bird in the picture below is, I think, a bit lost – a reef egret some 100 miles from a reef.

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A village festival

Shrine in the roots of the Banyan tree decorated for the Festival

Shrine in the roots of the Banyan tree decorated for the Festival

Food preparation area

Yesterday, 14 August, was the festival of Adi. This is a big event at our local temple when hundreds of pilgrims come to pay their respects to the local holy man, Sadayandi.

As far as we can determine, the legend is that Sadayandi was a sadhu who lived in a cave on hillside. He was noted as an astrologer and the local people came to consult him when they needed advice. After his death the cave where he lived became a temple with a sacred grove and a number of subsidiary shrines at the foot of the hill, nestling under ancient trees.

Throughout the year local families come to mark important rites of passage such as the first haircut of a child when they are about two and a half years old. On these occasions a goat will be sacrificed and friends and neighbours will be invited to join the celebrations and eat the goat as well as to make a contribution of money towards the child’s welfare. Phil has written about this in an earlier blog.
On this special festival day the whole area was transformed with all the shrines decorated with new clothes, a battalion of priests in saffron lunghis on hand to assist with pujas, and around the shrines all the necessities for a successful puja were being prepared. Garlands were being made, trays of candles, banana, coconut and beedi to satisfy the god were available and the barbers were on hand to provide the full head shave for all those who wanted to go all the way and sacrifice their beauty to the gods.

The garland maker

The garland maker

The priest waiting for next Pooja
Food was being prepared for all who came. This is provided free by the temple authorities and the local people and we had duly made our financial contribution a few days earlier.
Although it was still early, there was already a column of people wending their way up the hillside to the cave.

Food preparation area

Food preparation area

Religious duty done, the fun can begin. More stalls were getting ready to satisfy other needs – fried snacks without which no Indian day out is complete, a plethora of plastic toys for the children and even a wonderful wooden wheel (not quite the London Eye) to give the children rides.

Indian National colours make a tasty snack

Indian National colours make a tasty snack

Deep fried heaven - Indian style

Deep fried heaven – Indian style

The police and emergency services were on hand too but, in the early morning calm their duties were not arduous and they were enjoying their breakfast.

Local policemen ready for action

Local policemen ready for action

The mediaeval celebration of a Saint’s day in a local church must have felt much the same.

The Sadayandi temple is located near the Kamaraj Lake about 5 km from the village of Athoor, near the town of Dindigul.

It’s time for a break

We’ve been blogging about Tamil Nadu for some time now, and with August nearly upon us and a spate of birthdays to celebrate (including my father’s 90th) we are calling a halt for a month. We hope very much that you’ve enjoyed sharing our passion for south India – please tell your friends and let us know what you’d like to hear more of.

Here are a few snaps to round off, taken in the garden at the cottage (or from it). The really excellent one of the paradise flycatcher was taken by our friend Sanath Roy – look out for his blog on WordPress too.

Rock face

Rock face

Yellow-billed babbler

Yellow-billed babbler

Frangipani blossom

Frangipani blossom

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Sunbird outside the window, trying to scare off his own reflection

Sunbird outside the window, trying to scare off his own reflection

Asian paradise flycatcher

Asian paradise flycatcher

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

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It will be a disastrous day for south Indian roads when every motor-bike owner successfully aspires to own a car! Mind you, the launch of the Tata Nano, retailing at the time for one lakh rupees (R100,000) – around £1200 – was supposed to entice the motorcyclists away from their bikes, but you don’t hear so much of it these days.

Bikes are the transport of everyman, and carry everything. Tamils are a slender race, so three men fit easily onto a bike – and often do. Four men is feasible but a bit of a squeeze. Two men, with the passenger carrying something across their knees, is normal – I haven’t the photographic evidence, but I have seen any amount of amazing baggage – a goat, a small calf, a mattress, a bicycle, and once a large sheet of plate glass, which was really scary.

Bikes can be retro-fitted with a metal frame to carry six gas cylinders, for delivery down the small side lanes; bikes like the one in the photo are used rather as a donkey would be elsewhere. Our local milkman comes up the road each morning to the man with the buffalo herd carrying a huge churn and also the man to do the milking.

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But it is as a family vehicle that the bike reigns supreme. I definitely remember seeing an advert from the family planning people recommending that Indians restrict themselves to two children. One very good reason, they said, is that “the whole family can then easily be carried on a bike”. The man drives with the older of the children sitting in front of him; the woman rides side-saddle behind with the baby on her knee (or when the second child gets a little older, between her and her husband’s back). I should perhaps mention that all Indian bikes are fitted with a sari guard over the rear wheel, to avoid tangles.

Through the Eastern Ghats

I have just spent the weekend visiting friends in Bangalore, which involved a pleasant and varied drive up highway 7 from Dindigul. NH7 is apparently the longest road in India, at 2369km, and one day it would be fun to start at Kanniyakumari and take it all the way through Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, to end at the Hyderabad Gate, at the entrance to Varanasi on the Ganges.

My journey was less than 400km. I started on the wide plains of the upper Cauvery delta, where the wind was extremely strong and many new wind farms have been constructed. The landscape is dry – red sandy soil and acacia bush – and bare rocky strangely-shaped mountains rise a thousand feet or so out of the plain. Suddenly, however, you hit a green belt – the area irrigated by the Cauvery river. Dense plantations of banana and coconut line the highway, and along the river itself are a number of temples.

The hills then start to appear – medium-sized hills covered in bush through which the road winds on its way to Salem. To the east are the Kolli Hills, or Kolai Malai – relatively unspoiled ranges rising to four thousand feet or so. I have not visited them, but the entry in Wikipedia is quite enticing. Salem, on the other hand, is not enticing at all, though it has a famous history and is strategically situated where a number of important routes come through the hills. The city has expanded to take in the ring road, so traffic is fairly nightmarish and it took me 30 minutes to struggle through.

North of Salem, the road soon reaches Thoppur and then abruptly climbs several hundred feet up to a new level. Monkeys – the common-or-garden ones which you see at the side of the roads in all the forested areas, not the more attaractive langurs, which stay on the hillsides – are everywhere and stopping for a quiet picnic was impossible. Motorists will insist on flinging food out of the windows.

From Thoppur, through Dharmapuri and on to Krishnagiri, the scenery gets wilder again and the hills more bizarrely shaped. Some are mere piles of boulders which look as though they are ready to tumble; others are smooth cones of granite; some have sheer faces; the accessible ones may have a shrine or a small temple on top. In between are paddy fields whose vivid green makes a stark contrast to the red soil and grey rock. At Krishnagiri itself, a huge rock with a Vijayanagar Fort towers over the town.

Then comes the final leg. The traffic from Chennai has joined us at Krishnagiri, and the Highways Authority are busy widening the road to 6 or 8 lanes and putting in a number of flyovers. You can imagine the scene. The road climbs to three thousand feet in a series of gentle curves to reach the plains around Bangalore, and around 40km south of the city centre, you enter an urban landscape. With no rain yet, and continuous construction, it was all a bit dusty.

I am sorry I don’t have any photos of the trip – I was busy driving and needed at least two hands. But I hope you enjoyed the description.

Nor any drop to drink

Before the monsoon

Before the monsoon

The dreadful floods and loss of life reported from Uttarakhand have drawn attention to the onset of the 2013 monsoon, which arrived on June 1st at Kanniyakumari (the expected date) but then moved far more rapidly north than is normal, catching the pilgrims going to Kedarnath unawares. The finding and cremation of bodies continues – wood with which to cremate the dead is being taken in by helicopters which return with survivors.

But here in the middle of Tamil Nadu we are anxiously awaiting the rain – at second hand. Apart from the odd shower, we don’t expect much rainfall on the plains until November, when the winds of the retreating monsoon pass over the Bay of Bengal, picking up new moisture, and depositing it to the east of the mountains. But our dams and tanks are thirsty for water.

It is said that water which reaches the sea in rivers is wasted, so the Cauvery, the Vaigai, the Pannaiyar and the Palar are rivers of sand up to a mile wide and remain like that for most of the year. But there is a huge network of canals and irrigation channels which snake out over the land from large reservoirs at the foot of the hills.

There has been rain in the Nilgiris, and I hear that the Kundah dam is filling up and they have been able to start power generation. But around Kodaikanal there’s hardly been a drop. I walked up to the river this morning and it is a mere trickle among the stones. Nothing is reaching our dam, and soon the level will be below the lowest outlet and Dindigul will have to rely on water from deep borewells.

After the monsoon

After the monsoon

The lake can fill very quickly once the river starts flowing – our neighbour saw it rise one year by three feet overnight – but just at the moment we look out onto grassland and the local herdsmen are taking advantage of this and bringing in goats, sheep and cattle to graze.

The other people taking advantage of the low water level are the sand and mud miners. Until yesterday, there were three diggers removing 6 feet of red sand – said to be excellent for brickmaking – which was going out in convoys of big lorries. Closer to the remaining damp patches, gangs of men were taking out dense black mud and loading it onto tractor trailers, destined for the plantations. River mud and sand is very fertile and much in demand, and there is a big “informal” economy around its extraction.

Red Brick

Collectorate

Collectorate

The towns of the southern hill stations are tiny compared to those of the plains, and because the British authorities of the time were laying out a township in pretty much virgin territory, they seem to be more compact. This is particularly true of Ooty, where the Collectorate sits in a cluster of old buildings just down the road from St Stephen’s church.

St Stephen's

St Stephen’s

St Stephen’s is a delightful light building, whose construction was quite controversial – the then Governor laid the foundation stone in 1829 and then seems to have shamed the Madras government into finding the money. The great wooden beams for the interior were taken from the Tipu Sultan’s Lal Bagh Palace in Srirangapatnam, following his defeat in the great battle of 1799.

Nilgiri Library

Nilgiri Library

Opposite are the colonial buildings, of brick and wood, put up 100 to 150 years ago and surviving remarkably well. The Nilgiri Library has just celebrated its 150th anniversary with a makeover, and the Collectorate (or administrative HQ) is always spick and span. Higginbothams book shop has been freshly painted. The predominant colour for the bricks is red; and where there are wooden shutters (more usually found down in the plains) these tend to be green. The Madras Club’s new bamboo blinds, or chicks, are a splendid shade of green – it could be described as British Racing Green, but the paint shop in Dindigul knows it as “Country Club Green”!

Higginbothams

Higginbothams

It all makes a refreshing change from the white concrete boxes of modern India. Concrete painted white is singularly unsuited to a tropical climate, as we found to our cost when we had to repaint our house in Chennai yearly. The whitewash, if you don’t watch the painters like a hawk, gets diluted 50/50 to make it go further, and at the first shower trickles down the walls and into the garden where it makes greasy grey puddles. Even undiluted, it turns grey with mildew after the monsoon and the whole house looks quite unappealing.

Perhaps the early painters knew something which is now forgotten. I have a theory (unproven) that maybe that particular red and green contained some element (lead? arsenic?) which was inimical to mould and mildew and kept the buildings looking fresh. Whatever the case, they are much more attractive than the modern ones.

Steam up!

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Arriving on the overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai at the station of Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiris, you can – if you’re in a hurry – take a taxi up to Coonoor and then on to Ooty. It’ll take about an hour and a half – longer if you can persuade your taxi driver not to overtake on hairpin bends. The problem, of course, is that hairpin bends are much the easiest place to get past lorries: on a left-hand hairpin the lorry always goes onto the right-hand side to get round in one go and cars can slip through on the inside. Downwards traffic takes avoiding action. Everyone knows this is the system, and of course it works – most of the time!

But if you are not in a hurry you can take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, recently inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The rack-and-pinion train leaves Mettupalayam just after 7am and reaches Coonoor a little more than three hours later. An ordinary diesel traction locomotive then takes the train on from Coonoor to Ooty in another hour and a half.

The railway opened in 1899 with special coal-powered steam locomotives made in Switzerland. These have very recently been replaced by oil-powered steam locos made at the Golden Rock workshop in Trichy. The track from Mettupalayam to Coonoor climbs 1400 metres in 28km with a maximum gradient of 1 in 12 (the steepest in Asia) and a number of tunnels and bridges. In places the train is going so slowly that it is quite possible to get down and walk alongside for a while, and there are a number of stops to allow things to cool down. We recently went back to the Nilgiris and took a few photos of the train close to Hillgrove station, where it passes alongside the ghat road.

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From Coonoor to Ooty the track climbs another 500 metres, with stations at Wellington, for the Officer’s Academy; Aravankadu, for the Cordite Factory, then winding through the lovely Ketty valley (the other photos were taken at Ketty station) before reaching Lovedale, for the Lawrence School then passing through a final tunnel to run for a short while by the side of the lake then into Ooty station.

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You may have seen the train in the film A Passage to India, where Coonoor station had a starring role.