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.

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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.

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.