Category Archives: Culture

Aspects of cultural and religious life in Tamil Nadu

Floral tributes


Continuing from the previous blog, one of the features of the hill stations are their gardens, and most of the larger towns have a botanic or public garden. The one at Ooty surrounds the old residence of the Governor and is more of a botanic garden: the one in Kodai is more of a public park, begun in 1908 by a forest officer from Madurai, Mr Bryant, and named after him.

Here during May and June the flowers are at their best. The rose garden has been carefully nurtured; the bedding plants went in in March when the nights were not so cold; and now Bryant Park is packed with visitors. It is the venue for the annual Flower Show which is now in its 52nd year and which follows the usual British flower show format – with some interesting Indian additions.



So – you can expect to find displays of single and grouped specimens of roses, dahlias and carnations, but also Bird of Paradise and orchids. In the vegetable section you will find carrots, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, but also green chilli, banana on a stem and plantains.


A curious section is for carved vegetables. When we were there in 2001, I vividly remember seeing carved statues of Ganesh and Siva, made from large turnips, I think. This year there is a splendid model of the Taj Mahal made from plantain stem and white radish.


But the star of this year’s Show is an “Angry Bird” made from 20,000 carnations!


To the hills!


You may have seen that temperatures in India have soared. Delhi hit 45.1 the other day (over 113F) and one of our friends, who is visiting Orissa, said that the thermometer was hovering around 40 most days with a “comfort level” (as the weather men say) of 50! I presume they mean discomfort level.

May in India is when the sun has passed over the southern states and is heading to its June 21st rendezvous with the tropic of Cancer, which crosses India from the Gulf of Kutch to Kolkata, passing almost exactly through Bhopal. There are no clouds to filter the rays. Modern buildings are all of concrete with flat roofs and just soak up the sun all day, radiating it out again during the night. [The colonial architecture, having to deal with the heat without electricity for fans and air conditioners, is a lot more sensible. High ceilings, wide verandahs and ventilation spaces at the tops of the walls.]

This is the month when those who can, head for the hills. From early May to the end of June the hill stations are crowded with visitors. In the north is the famous station of Shimla, summer seat of government in the pre-independence days, with places such as Mussoorie, Dalhousie and Nainital catering to visitors according to budget, as those who read Kipling will recollect.

In Tamil Nadu we have two main hill stations: Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. “Snooty Ooty”, or as it prefers to be known, The Queen of the Hills, is in the middle of the Nilgiris range with Coonoor a thousand feet or so lower down. Here the ghat road gives up its leisurely descent from Ooty and disappears over the edge of the cliff, dropping five thousand feet in just over twenty miles to Mettupalayam on the plains below.

Going up to the hills is just as exciting. Approaching Kodaikanal the town gets ever closer but the road doesn’t seem to want to start climbing. Eventually, about 30 miles short, the road changes from a good wide highway to something a bit more than single track but not always quite two-lane, and starts to climb. Six thousand vertical feet and two hours later you pass through a narrow notch and arrive at the dam which forms Kodai lake.


Lakes were created in all the major hill stations, and at Kodai is used for boating with a delightful path around the shore for walking, cycling or pony riding. Fast food Indian style is everywhere – especially, at this season, spiced mangos.

There are also numerous shops selling chocolates, perfumes, essential oils, cheap fleeces and balaclavas.

The hill towns are sadly over-developed, but many original bungalows still survive with names such as Rose Cottage, Burnside, Hilltop or Valley View. The temperature dips sharply at sunset and then the air fills with the scent of wood smoke as rich and poor light their fires. At sunset the road down also gets a bit hairy as people who have dallied suddenly realise they need to get home. A ghat road after dark is not for the faint-hearted!

There is so much more to say about the hill stations – but that is for another time.

400 yards of Anna Salai

[I wrote this in January 2001, when we first arrived in Chennai. The Connemara Hotel is an Art Deco masterpiece, Spenser Plaza is the oldest shopping plaza in India, built on the site of the original Spencer’s Department Store. To retrace this walk at present is tricky due to the excavations for the Chennai Metro. The pavement shops have gone and the hoardings are mainly plastic sheet, now, instead of hand-painted. But the buses still stop at the junction!]

When I leave the Connemara to walk round to Eunice’s office, I am leaving a place where a room and breakfast cost $130 a night: that is 8000 rupees a day. The official poverty line in India is about 60 cents a day, so what I spend on a night in the hotel could support 216 people. I find this quite difficult to imagine.

Anyway, on leaving the hotel, I first see the auto-rickshaw drivers waiting by the gate (they’re not allowed into the hotel grounds). They don’t try to persuade me to use their services any more, as I do this walk every day. If I do want to do a trip, I try to use Navin, who is a good driver and has a good rickshaw. He lives with his family in a slum replacement property by the river, measuring 10 x 15 feet. One door and no windows, and I don’t know how many people live in it.

Then comes the first stretch of “pavement” up to the corner. I put it in inverted commas, since it is really only earth and broken slabs. There is a useful electricity junction box here – useful as a place behind which the men can go for a pee (although it is not exactly private, and I don’t know what the reaction would be if I went for a pee there). There is also the first of the beggars, a guy with withered legs who has a hand-pedalled cart to get around on. Two lads of about 7 and 10 work here with a hand pump, inflating bike tyres for a small charge.

Approaching the corner there are some stalls which conveniently block the pavement and force pedestrians into the road. We have:

  1. a fast food stall, serving water, tea and coffee; curry and rice (and pretty good it looks)
  2. a stall from which you can phone and fax (international too)
  3. a flower stall
  4. a woman with a machine which crushes sugar cane to make juice
  5. a cobbler
  6. a guy who appears to cut up inner tubes, for some mysterious purpose
  7. a book seller.


Towering above these are the advertising hoardings for which India is famous. These are mainly made of tin sheets tacked to flimsy wooden or bamboo poles, and hand painted, even down to extremely accurate trademarks. Camel trousers are on one, and Arrow shirts on another. Most days there are some guys clinging onto the poles with one hand while painting with the other. There are certainly no safety harnesses. These hoardings are perhaps only 30 feet above the pavement, but some in the centre of town are about 120 feet up.

On the corner, which is railed off for safety, is the unofficial bus stop where everyone gets off into the middle of the turn left lane, since the official stops are too far away from the junction for convenience. It adds another thrill of excitement to getting off a bus, to add to the thrill of hanging onto the outside since the inside is full. I have seen 10 lads hanging on to one bus doorway with just the toes of one foot in contact with the bottom step.

Next I see the two old men, one who makes belts and the other who mends sandals. They can’t afford a stall, so they squat on the pavement at exactly the right level to inhale the exhaust fumes. They shade themselves with gunny bags tied to the railings behind and stretched forward to loop over one toe.

There is usually a woman with a baby begging here – I am in two minds whether to give, but the advice from Eunice’s staff is not to – and 2 or 3 kids who shout hello and try to shake my hand. They also want rupees.

We hit the entrance to the Spencer Plaza next, a multi-storey fully air-conditioned shopping centre. Only cars are allowed in the parking, so the rickshaws are forced to park illegally outside on the road, adding to the congestion. Spencers is popular in Chennai because of the a/c, but it is claustrophobic inside, full of little stalls, and I was glad not to have been there the other day when FoodWorld caught fire.

This is the main road of Chennai, so some big offices come next, each with its pavement resident: the man who sells lottery tickets, the woman who sells fresh coconuts, the two elderly cripples outside the shop which sells fridges, more books and belts, a guy who appear to sell plastic netting which I think is for storing fruit in.

The exciting part of the walk, where the pulse rate goes up, is where the pavement disappears for 50 yards. Pedestrians are the lowest form of life, whatever their skin colour, but just here there are not many places to jump to, as there is a high wall along the road. At least going to Eunice’s office I can see what is coming and squeeze in – coming back, I need eyes in the back of my head.

Just where the pavement restarts you get a part you don’t want to use. I am no electrical expert, but I feel somehow that cables sheathed in metal which is peeling off should be safely underground and not poking out of the ground. I tiptoe amongst them, but in the rainy season it must be interesting just here.

Across the entrance to the garage forecourt I stop and start, as the cars and rickshaws wheel in at full speed from the main road and I am expected to know which point they are aiming at. The same is true of the two streets whose entrances I cross here, where vehicles coming in and out do not stop for people. I have had cars nudging my legs before now.

I am approaching the lane to the office now, and only have to detour round another informal toilet (behind another junction box – I am glad I don’t work for the electricity board) and sidestep another beggar, before I can turn in. I have been ignored by most people, stared at by some, importuned by about 6, and that’s life on this bit of street.



It is the long school holidays and Hubert recently took his family down to Gingee for the day. This is a historic site a couple of hours drive south of Chennai, and is pronounced “Shinji”. Getting there from Pondicherry is even easier, but despite its attractions few westerners ever visit – perhaps this is because it does not fit into a standard touring programme.

Gingee needs a full day, and the challenge is to get there as it opens and do the hill-top sites before midday; you can then picnic under the trees at the foot of the hill and have a siesta through the worst of the heat before finishing off with the tanks and temples.


For Gingee is a royal site, constructed around three isolated hills of tumbled rock. Stone stairs take you up each hill, through gateways and a series of encircling walls, to the summit from which a stunning view opens out of the plains: and from there you see the strategic nature of the place, guarding a key route from the plataeu to the plains. The stonework is particularly fine in the way in which it is buttressed into the huge boulders, leaving little or no room for invaders to clamber up.


It was Vijayanagara who developed Gingee into a strategic outpost from the 15th century, but like all South India forts it changed hands many times, ending up with the East India Company forces in 1762. By the end of the 18th century it has lost its value and was abandoned.

The Archaeological Survey have been busy in Gingee for years and are gradually bringing back to life the massive granaries, the elephant tank (with a ramp down which the elephants could walk into the water), a possible royal residence, a mosque and several temples.

Mango farmers beware!


The mango season in India is beginning and a huge variety are coming into the markets. In the same way that every French citizen is convinced that the cheese from their own town or village surpasses all others, so in India everyone knows that their local mangos are the best. On railway platforms and at airport check-in; on the tops of buses and tied onto scooters, boxes of mangos travel up and down the country as concerned family members take or send the fruit to their relatives in not so fortunate places.

We find ripe mangos from the tree, and green ones as chutney, absolutely delicious. But they are also extremely popular with the Giant Indian Fruit Bat. By the dam wall of our lake is a grove of old trees which host a colony of these mammals – also known as flying foxes. Whereas a small bat is truly like a flying mouse (hence Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus), these have golden fur and fox-like faces.

I tried to get some photos to share with you though it is not easy, as they wrap themselves in their wings when roosting with just their noses peeping out. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
They squabble amongst themselves all day, sometimes changing trees, but the main exodus is just after dusk. We sit on the roof of the cottage and first a handful, then groups, then a constant stream of dark shapes flies over. They are leisurely fliers – the wingbeat is quite slow – in contrast to the smaller bats who are also active at that time, darting and jinking for insects.

At the top of the valley are mango orchards which we imagine is the main destination for the fruit bats, though further up the slopes of the mountain are other fruit trees. I hope the farmers continue to tolerate their depredations – they are becoming rarer in India, and we are lucky to have the colony so close by.


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Bollywood is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the showing of the first movie in India – May 5th, 1913. But many people pass over the very lively Tamil movie scene centred on Kodambakkam in Chennai – Kollywood. The first Tamil silent move was screened in 1918 and the first talkie in 1931, 7 months after the first one in India.

I forget the exact statistics, but although south India contains only about a quarter of the population of India it generates around 75% of film revenue. Cinemas in the south reach beyond the big towns into the rural areas, and are wildly popular. More films in Hindi are produced than in any other Indian language, but Telugu (Andhra Pradesh) and Tamil movies come second and third respectively. As a measure of the size of the industry, 206 Hindi, 192 Telugu and 185 Tamil films were certified in 2011.

The cinema buildings themselves are also worth noting: many were being built in the 1930s and 1940s and are architecturally interesting – though now mostly sadly dilapidated.

What makes the industry more interesting in Tamil Nadu is the link with politics. Many of our prominent politicians started in the movies and then moved into politics, presumably taking their fan club as their electoral base. The current chief minister, Jayalalithaa, started acting in 1964 and appeared with the great MGR (M G Ramachandran) between 1965 and 1972. He was leader of one of the main political parties – in fact he was the first film actor in India to become chief minister of a state – and after his death Jayalalithaa in due course became its leader.

Abimanyu’s big day

[Written on 10th March 2013. I have been waiting for the photos!]

Abimanyu is two and a half years old, and it has been decided that today will be the day when he has his first haircut and also when his ears are pierced. This is part of a religious ceremony – a rite of passage. It is the closest Sunday to the dark moon, so combines auspiciousness with practicality since most people can take some time off on a Sunday.

Thirupathi has been organising things for weeks. He’s expecting 100 to 150 people for lunch, which will be goat curry – a goat plays an important part in the ceremony. But this morning just after dawn a few of us were at the temple close by to the cottage which is dedicated to Sadaiyandy, a God peculiar to south India and Sri Lanka whom you won’t find mentioned in the Hindu pantheon. [More of Sadaiyandy in a future blog].


After sweeping the area around the shrine, which is beautifully situated in a sacred grove by the lake, a short puja was done after which the goat was bathed and marked with pink spots. It was a splendid white animal with a black head. This was then removed by the local man who specialises in such things, and was placed in front of the shrine to Karuppusamy, the god who is also the “security guard” of the temple. The left front lower leg was cut off and placed in its mouth. This is very old magic and harkens back to the worship of the Dravidian gods who were adopted by the Hindus but whose form of worship has not changed a great deal.

Then it was Abimanyu’s turn to be centre stage. He was blessed by the priest then seated comfortably on the lap of a friend while his head was shaved by the local barber (who cuts my hair too – an excellent workman). A little whimpering was soon shushed and after 10 minutes or so Abi was totally bald for the first time in his life. Possibly also the last, unless he makes a vow in adulthood to donate his hair to a temple. He was then bathed to wash away all the bits of hair, and then his head covered in turmeric paste which had also been blessed.

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The final part of the ceremony was when Abi was taken into the sanctum, seated in the lap of one of his uncles on the steps to the altar, and had his ears pierced and a pair of small gold earrings fitted. The first ear was a surprise and he reacted predictably (there was no anaesthetic). The second, alas, was not a surprise. But Abi was a really brave boy and with so many people praising him soon got over the shock.

I was privileged to be the uncle.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.