Category Archives: Culture

Aspects of cultural and religious life in Tamil Nadu

On the streets of Chennai



The Chennai traffic police reckon that there are 18 different types of conveyance using the roads. This partly accounts for the congestion and rather stop/start style of driving. I have so far seen the following road users:

1.         The Urban Cow. More noticeable at night, they stroll around the streets rummaging in rubbish bins. They all seem to belong to someone, and seem to be able to navigate the streets to and from home. Like all other traffic users, they change lanes without signalling.

2.         Bullock carts. Usually 4 wheel carts for heavy goods. The horns of the beast are often painted red or green, and decorated on the tips with bells.

3.         Horses. We have men on horses for two main reasons: either it is a groom going to a wedding, such as the one at the hotel last Sunday, or the complete opposite, a lad taking horse down to the beach to offer rides where they gallop bareback up and down the sand trying to whip up custom. In the first case, the procession goes at walking pace – the wedding we saw was preceded by the Jaleb Punjab Band – “full brass band and orchestra” – who gave quantity of sound in preference to quality, then male relatives dancing, the groom on horseback, sitting on red and gold cloth and shaded by a red and gold umbrella, followed by female relatives dancing with in this case torches made of fluorescent tubes tied to sticks, all linked together with a cable to a car battery, so they couldn’t move far apart.

4.         Horse drawn carriages. These seem to be reserved for weddings, though there are some horse buggies around. I saw a wonderful old photo of a woman’s grandparents in their phaeton, with two grooms and two running footmen, up in the hills. It was taken on the last occasion the carriage was used before the car arrived.

5.         Pedestrians. The pavements are not people-friendly at all, and in places disappear completely. Where they do exist, they are a suitable site for beggars; salesmen; stalls selling tea and coffee, sugar cane juice, and snacks; shoe polishers and repairers; cows; and of course parking.</pIMG_9156

6.         Men pulling and pushing things. 2, 3 and 4 wheel carts abound. I have seen big wooden barrows like the market porters use, a sort of giant supermarket trolley, 4 wheel carts with a man harnessed rather than a bullock – any combination you can imagine.

7.         Bicycles. A popular form of transport, though we never had the courage to get ours out of the drive. Driving consists of going for the smallest advantage, turning across the oncoming traffic, taking traffic lights and one way signs as merely advisory – and bikes are way down the pecking order only ahead of pedestrians. Bikes are designed for 2 people – one on the rack – and sometimes 3. Single occupancy bikes are a waste of an opportunity to transport someone else.

8.         Other pedal driven things. The best is the cycle rickshaw, which takes two in comfort unless you have a western-sized bum. It is tricycle based. There is a cargo equivalent, where the seats are replaced by a flat wooden platform. I have also seen tricycles with two wheels at the front, and hand pedalled invalid carriages.

9.         The auto rickshaw. This is a ubiquitous three-wheeler which is the main form of transport. It seats two in comfort behind the driver – which means that many more than this can pile in in practice. We saw 7 students get out of one outside the university – apparently they were not going for any records – and one of Eunice’s staff told us that the ones which do the school run have an extra shelf seat for the little ones, and by hanging the school bags outside can take up to 15 kids. If you see what looks like a motorised Xmas tree, take care. It has a little 2 stroke engine, but can get up to quite a speed. I took one the other day which had a leather interior and a 4 speaker Pioneer stereo system, which took me down the main drag at 50 kph. Of course the main disadvantage is that you are seated exactly at the level of the average bus exhaust.

            The auto rickshaw has two variations. In one, the seat area is converted into a van, which is amazingly useful for the small alleys, and the other where it is converted to take an articulated 2 wheel trailer.

10.       Motorised two and three wheelers. There are so many varieties of these. Ordinary scooters and motor bikes are very common and thank goodness here in the south that their owners don’t trade them in for cars. The scooter was once advertised by Government as an ideal family vehicle, and a good reason to limit your family to 4. The elder child sits in front of dad, who naturally drives, and the baby is held by mum who sits side-saddle on the back. I am amazed that all the trailing bits of sari and scarf don’t get tangled in the wheels more often, though they all have sari guards fitted. Then there are the pedal vehicles which have been motorised, like the fish carts (which carried the fish from the beach in the old days). The driver sits high off the ground, and can supplement the motor with pedalling when the going gets tough. These can also become people carriers, with the addition of seats and maybe a roof. I saw one with 7 school kids in the other day.

11.       Cars. All shapes and sizes. The classic vehicle is of course the famous Hindustan Ambassador, which was a Morris Oxford in earlier life. Bench seats, with a certain style. You can get air conditioned ones too. It is considered bad form to actually bump into another vehicle (although bikes don’t count much) so despite the total lack of lane discipline and much jockeying for pole position at the lights, there are few scrapes. Crossing the central white line to gain a few yards advantage, irrespective of oncoming traffic, is normal. 

12.       Vans, lorries and buses. The buses are the kings of the road, with a ground clearance of about 2 feet so you need to be pretty fit to get on board. They tank down the road with horns blaring, and people hop off and on wherever they can – particularly at the traffic lights, when they get off in the middle of the road and then have to run the gauntlet of all the traffic filtering left. Mind you, horns are used by everyone all the time. It is more to make a noise to let people know you are there, as it has no discernible impact on the way people actually drive. They even hoot when stopped at the lights.

I think that’s more than 18, if you break down the sub-groups. But I am sure that there will be more weird and wonderful road experiences just around the next corner – after all, this is just Chennai city!

To the beach!


The Marina Beach in Chennai is described as the largest urban or city beach in India, and the second largest in the world (but without mentioning which is the largest). It stretches between the mouths of the two rivers crossing the city, the Cooum to the north and the Adyar to the south. Over 100 years ago the then Governor, Grant Duff, decided that the stretch behind the beach would be laid out as a promenade, and subsequent harbour work has encouraged the sand to accumulate. The beach is now 300 to 400 metres wide from road to sea, and about 13 km long.

 Sunday evening is the time to visit, when an estimated 50,000 Chennaites come down to the sea to escape the heat and the mosquitoes. The beach is full of vendors – food, drinks and souvenirs; you can go horse-riding, there are informal cricket pitches everywhere; small fairground rides are set out. People come with banana leaf offerings and make puja at the water’s edge, some daring ones splash around in the waves. Although the sun is setting behind the city, the pink afterglow is picked up by the clouds and carried right round to the eastern horizon.

Everyone is in a good mood, and this is the best way to meet people of all descriptions on neutral territory, as it were. European visitors are rare, and it is advisable to make sure your camera is fully charged since everyone wants a photo with you, of you and of themselves.


Swimming is not advisable. There is a strong undertow and treacherous sideways currents. The occasional rogue wave takes people unawares, and there are frequent accidents. It still makes our blood curdle when we think of the tsunami in 2004. This hit the beach on Boxing Day Sunday, at 8.40 in the morning. The waves crossed the entire width of the sand, then the parking area, then the promenade, then the road, and into the grounds of the police headquarters. But the majority of the morning walkers had finished and gone home; and few cricketers had yet arrived. 200 people were swept away, which is a tragedy, but imagine the disaster had the wave struck that evening.


We have a particular liking for the small temple inside the fort at Vellore, which is not on the usual tour circuit of Tamil Nadu. The temple compound contains a small mandapam, or hall, with some of the finest stone carving we have seen. The fort was occupied by the British for two centuries and for much of that time the temple was de-sanctified and used as an arsenal – hence the temple is unimproved and the carving largely undamaged.


The carvings range from the sacred to the profane to the amusing. One large block has a very small gecko on it in relief – implying the painstaking removal of a huge layer of extraneous stone (like the Greek herm). Another decorative panel has an elephant and a bull – which share a head. Somehow the elephant’s tusks become the bull’s ears. The platform on which the VIPs sat rides on a turtle, albeit a very flat one! The main columns are beautifully carved with riders on horses and mythical beasts, fighting wild animals.


All of this is done in granite, not the easiest rock to carve. In fact the entire fort is made of granite from the surrounding hills. Vellore fort was built in 1566 by the Vijayanagara Empire, fell into the hands of the Marathas, then the Mughals, and then the British from 1760. The first mutiny against the British in India happened at Vellore in 1806. The fort is now managed as a historic monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Vellore can be visited easily in a day trip from Chennai, perhaps combined with Kanchipuram, famous for temples and silk-weaving.

Let’s go clubbing!


We leave India tomorrow for Glasgow, and it’s going to be quite a shock! Daytime temperature around 5 degrees with a cold north-easterly wind, which will make it seem a lot colder. Here in Chennai we have finished our morning walk round the Club garden and at 8am it is already quite warm. It should hit the mid-30s by the afternoon, but at the moment the humidity is over 90% so it seems a lot hotter.

We are staying at the Madras Club. It was founded in 1832, and is the second oldest surviving club in India, after the Bengal Club in Calcutta. 50 years ago it moved to occupy a heritage building on the banks of the Adyar River, a building which was constructed in the 1780s as a weekend retreat for George Moubray who was the first accountant at Fort St George and was on the Grain Committee during the terrible famine of 1781. He clearly amassed quite a sizeable personal fortune out of one thing or another! The building has a splendid ballroom with a wooden sprung floor, and (anecdotally) guests could ride over to dance parties from Fort St George, some 6km away, through what were then mostly small villages surrounded with bush, and hunt deer on the way! 

The Madras Club garden rolls down to the Adyar on which this morning the scullers of the nearby Madras Boat Club were out practicing. Huge flocks of egrets were rooting around in the floating mats of water hyacinth, and a woodland park has been opened along the opposite bank for morning and evening walks. Until a year ago this was a fairly scruffy bit of river, although I have seen small groups of spotted deer coming down to the river to drink. Chennai is one of the few cities with a national park inside city limits, at Guindy, which is about 3 km away.

Writers often seem to imply that Club life in India is something peculiar, but from hearing my father talk I think that a member of any golf club in UK would feel quite at home here. Club employees stay on till long after retirement and remember your grandfather; members band together in solidarity about certain issues and have bitter arguments about others; and the committee never get any thanks!

Rocks and plains


On Wednesday I drove north to join Eunice in Chennai, a distance of some 420km which we can now do in comfort on the new highway. Mind you, once you reach the Ford factory nearly 50km out of Chennai you start to get bogged down in traffic and then it is a crawl into the city – Chennai is rapidly spreading down the highways and the city’s sphere of influence stretches a long way from the centre.

But the drive from Dindigul to Trichy, thence to Ulundurpet where the road from Coimbatore and Kerala comes in, to the Pondicherry junction at Viluppuram, is full of interest. The first 100 km from Dindigul thread through some small green hills, part of the Eastern Ghats, and acres of excellent farmland, before crossing a dry plain to enter Trichy. The Cauvery river flows past Trichy – well, the river channel passes by, but it is a rare year when there is actually water in it. Water which reaches the sea is considered to be wasted so numerous canals and irrigation channels leave the Cauvery all along its length.

Trichy is famous for its rock fort (which is now a temple complex) and the great temple at Srirangam which occupies an island in the middle of the river. The fort sits on one of a number of rocks which push up between the city buildings. One of them, Ponmalai, or Golden Rock, gives its name to the Golden Rock workshop for Southern Railways which moved here in 1928 and which recently completed a new locomotive for the rack-and-pinion section of the Nilgiris Mountain Railway.

Crossing the river and heading on north-east the countryside becomes much drier. Close to the road it is just thorn bushes but to the west rise steep hills (or small mountains) which have developed into some fantastic shapes. Some are crowned with places of worship – Hindus, Moslems and Christians all seem to like heights – while others are being quarried for building stone. Now and again large dry rivers are crossed, and in places huge reservoirs are now emptying fast (this is a drought year in Tamil Nadu).

We’ve done this trip for the last 12 years, and each time have remarked on a little fort on a little rock by the road which seems unloved. This time we stopped to have a closer look and were in for a surprise. At ground level, a large stone wall circles the rock and quite a large area of land. A moat, now dry, protected the walls. A stone staircase mounts the rock through a number of inner walls, with temples and shrines, carved rock reliefs, to a lookout about 150 feet above the plain but with an uninterrupted 360 degree view.

An elderly man sitting in the shade of a tree told us it was the Nawabkottai – the Nawab’s fort. Our historian friend in Chennai whom we met last night said that if the word Nawab was used then it was probably a fort of the Nawab of the Carnatic, who was based in Trichy. The village is called Ranjankudi. I looked for information this morning and discovered that the fort was indeed built for a minor lord of the Nawab some time in the 17th century. It was the site of a battle between the English and French in 1751.

It is one of many such monuments to past struggles which are scattered about the plains.

By any other name

There is an article in today’s The Hindu on the use of nicknames and aliases among the criminal fraternity which started me musing about names in general.

In the “olden days” in England, when most men seemed to be called either John or William or Richard, there were various methods of distinguishing them. If you were sufficiently high and mighty you could be “of” an entire principality or county, such as William of Normandy and John of Burgundy. Slightly lower down the social scale come the counties and towns and you find Richard of Essex, William of Lichfield and John of Norwich. At the village level where people travelled less or not at all, it was more useful to talk about trades – Richard Carpenter, William Fletcher, the ubiquitous John Smith – or of distinguishing features – John Crookshank, William Rufus, Richard Whitehead – or of family descent – John Richard’s son, Richard John’s son.

But at some stage things solidified, and we ended up with the concept of a given name and a family name. All forms and questionnaires are based on that fact. So imagine the difficulties most Tamils are faced with when they try to fill in an immigration form, since most people here do not have a family name which passes down the generations. Instead the father’s given name is passed on to the son as an initial (or sometimes several initials). M Ramaswamy’s son would be R Pandy, and his sons would in turn be P Chinnappa and P Murugesan, for example. And the initials are not in everyday use. Most Tamil men are known only by their given name. When faced with the usual form – family name and given name – there is a hard decision which to put where. This is why the equivalent Indian forms ask also for the names of your father and mother, to get the correct identity.

Returning to the article in The Hindu, it was noting that the criminal classes are most prone to using nicknames and that the police have experts in making sure that the criminals fit the crime. Tamil Nadu is gripped at the moment with an on-going saga regarding the murder of a man called N Suresh Babu. This Suresh, however, is universally known as Pottu Suresh, apparently since he put a tilak, or tika mark, on his forehead. Being sought for questioning in the matter is V P Pandi. Pandi, however, is a very common name in the south and this particular Pandi is known as “Attack” Pandi – not it seems due to any predisposition, but because he used to sport an “Attack cut” hairstyle!


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Tamil Nadu contains only four of the 29 World Heritage Sites in India currently inscribed with UNESCO, but they are a splendid four. Just down the road from Chennai is one of the easiest to access, and one of the best – the collection of monuments around which the town of Mahabalipuram is spread.

The monuments are sufficiently well known, I think, not to need a great deal of description from me. The variety is stunning: majestic temples constructed from finished stone; sanctuaries and shrines hewn out of the living rock; carved monoliths; and elaborate friezes with both serious and amusing characters. These are mostly distributed around the town and the rocky hill along its western side, but there are others a little to the west and north of the main group.

But the experience is not always what it could be. We are saddened to see Mahabalipuram so often sandwiched into a trip from Chennai to Pondicherry which probably takes in Dakshina Chitra and the Crocodile Bank en route (both worth visiting, needless to say), plus 4 hours on the road.

Mahabalipuram is at its best at dawn. The two sites for which you need a ticket open at 6am for that very purpose, and the experience of visiting the Shore Temple (today’s picture) as the sun is coming up out of the Bay of Bengal is unforgettable. You can then take in the Rathas – five temples in the form of free-standing chariots which have each been carved out of a single rock – and then go round to see the Penance Panel, the largest rock-relief of its kind, before the sun gets too hot.

This means staying the previous night locally which is perfectly easy as there are a large number of hotels to suit all budgets. If you arrive around 4pm, you then can take in some of the cave temples and sanctuaries (which are often omitted) – take a torch for the painting and carving in the darker inner recesses) – and climb to the top of the hill to watch the sun go down over the plains. Don’t miss the bath carved into the summit and the children’s slide on the way down below an enormous perched granite boulder, known as Krishna’s butter-ball.

Mahabalipuram has a long and respectable history. It was an important port from ancient times – at least the 1st century BC when there was documented trade with south-east Asia. Spices were transhipped here to move across southern India to ports on the west coast and onwards to the Middle East and Europe. Then it was called by a different name – there are a number of possibilities. But in 624AD Narasimha, a king of the Pallava dynasty, was victorious over the Chalukyan kingdom, and moved his headquarters and a number of artisans down to the port. His nickname was Mahamalla – the great wrestler – and the port was renamed Mahamallapuram (ie Mahamalla-town) and later shortened to Mamallapuram. Mahabalipuram is a modern name probably dating from the Raj.

The sound of chisels is a constant background to your visit. Stone sculptures can be commissioned and delivered anywhere (we have a Ganesh outside the door of our flat in Glasgow), and many of the workshops are happy to have visitors. I shudder to think of the conversation which one day will happen between a Mahabalipuram craftsman and his son – “what do you mean, you don’t want to be a stone-carver when you grow up? Our family has been carving stone for 1300 years and if it was good enough for me and my father and his father and …..”.

A Tamil town


Yesterday I drove the 25km into Dindigul, our nearest town, and also the nearest reliable ATM. Dindigul is not on the tourist routes: if you go direct from Trichy to Madurai you can now do this on the new highway without coming anywhere near Dindigul; if you come down from Bangalore and Salem to the south, Dindigul has a fine new bypass and all you will get is a sight of the rock. The picture is a poor view taken at the wrong time of day – when the sun is setting the rock goes deep red, like Ayres Rock. But more on the rock in a later blog.

I want to try to give an impression of our town. First of all, some facts. Data from the 2011 Census of India are available on-line, and from these we find that Dindigul city has a population of around 210,000 people. It is the municipal headquarters of Dindigul District, which contains around 2.2 million people, some 3% of the population of Tamil Nadu. [Tamil Nadu had 72.1 million people in 2011]. Various websites say that Dindigul is famous for locks and tanneries; for cheroots; for fruit and vegetables; and Dindigul biriyani is a famous dish all over the south.

But it is a confusing town to get around. The roads don’t quite seem to lead to where you would expect: the Palani road, for example, ends in a T-junction and you then struggle through a narrow lane which finally gets to the New Palani road. The Karur road is not now the main way to Karur. I navigate on key shops: the road of the metal shelf makers leads onto the road of the safe-makers and thence to the station; the road past the massage-oil shop leads onto the street with the coffee shop and then the supermarket; the road with the big petrol bunk has the best fruit and veg shop; and so on.

The town grew at the base of the rock which was fortified by the Nayakas from Madurai during the 17th century and then passed to the Mysore army in 1745 and was governed by Hyder Ali from 1755. The British took control of it in 1799 after the battle with Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatnam. Round the base of the rock are a few remnants of the British era including a sadly neglected cemetery. But the value of the town now is that it is very well situated for trade, sitting in a gap between an isolated mountain called Sirumalai and the Palani Hills, which mark the easternmost end of the Western Ghats. [Sirumalai means “little hill” in Tamil, which is an understatement. I estimate it measures 20km by 15km, and rises to around 1800 metres].

As you might expect, there are few historic buildings left apart from religious ones. People are focusing on trade, and there is no room for emotion. But nor is there any desire to wilfully knock down something which can still do a job, so the Sunday doctors operate their charitable clinics from temporary cabins inside an old warehouse, modern glass-and-concrete stores rise between brick and stone houses from the 1950s, and here and there are single-storey cottages from 100 years ago or earlier.

The fruits and vegetables are excellent. Some come down from Sirumalai and a lot from Kodaikanal, so there is a good variety of produce from hills and plains. Yesterday I bought my first mangos of the season which I had for breakfast this morning.

I’ll take the high road


On Sunday I drove from our cottage deep in rural south Tamil Nadu to Chennai, where I shall be studying for a month. Driving in India fills many people’s hearts with fear, but here in Tamil Nadu it’s really not as bad as all that – once you get used to the informal Highway Code which operates here. But the roads, and the driving, are so much better than they were when we first came to Chennai in 2001. That May it took us over 13 hours to drive the 500 km to Kodaikanal. The road was a normal 2-lane highway and full of lorries – and there seemed to be a wreck of a lorry every 20 km or so. Overtaking was a tense affair and seemingly independent of bends or brows of hills, or indeed whether someone was already overtaking coming in the other direction. We shall never forget seeing an ox-cart coming round the corner towards us, being passed by a lorry, which in turn was being overtaken by a bus. That occupied all of the tarmac, leaving us the hard shoulder – which was fortunately unoccupied.

Since 1998 the National Highways Development Project has been turning major highways into dual carriageways, and widening and straightening them and building bridges over the many railways which criss-cross the plains. They started on the NH45 Chennai to Dindigul road about 7 years ago and now it is complete our journey time has halved. Queuing at a single level crossing (or “railway gate”) could have added 30 to 40 minutes to a journey alone, and passing through the centre of each town half and hour more.

So what are the current rules of the road? First: you are responsible for avoiding everything which is ahead of you (ie with the front of the other vehicle level or ahead of the driver’s seat). So if someone turns left across your bows from the right hand lane, you have to miss them. By deduction, everyone who is behind that imaginary line can be safely ignored. Use of wing and rear view mirrors is entirely optional. Indicators are not necessary. As they say, if you are lucky enough to have have a hand free, use it on the horn. 

Second: on a dual carriageway the outside lane is for slow vehicles. Passing is done on the inside – it is helpful to have a front-seat passenger who can tell you when the way is clear. [This is similar to the job of the cleaner of a lorry, whose function when the lorry is under way is to flap his hand when the lorry wants to veer left]. The “fast” lane is also occasionally used by lorries and buses coming in the opposite direction. This is because the highway builders have not put enough gaps in the central meridian, and no lorry or bus driver is prepared to enter the highway and drive in the wrong direction until there is a place they can do a U-turn. Waste of precious and expensive diesel.

Third: in towns, where road users range from 2 wheels to many, and for that matter from ox-carts to pedestrians, it is the duty of every driver/operator to gain as much advantage as possible over his fellow road users, whether it makes any difference to the total journey time or not. Every traffic light is a scrum; lane markings are just for fun; roads are for walking on (since the pavements are dodgy or non-existent). Driving through urban traffic is very much like snorkelling through a shoal of fish. 

And fourth: rural roads have been built to give farmers a nice clean flat place to dry their grain, load their tractors, winnow their rice, and generally meet their friends.

But remember that most vehicles are being driven not by their owner but by an employed driver, who has a vested interest in avoiding accidents. Enjoy your journey! You see so much more than from the train or plane.

Our big tree

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe big tree which shades the rear of our cottage has been losing its leaves and old dry seed pods for the last two months. [The first time this happened I panicked and thought it was dying!]. Each time we swept the drive and pathways another gust of wind came and dumped a new load of leaf litter plus small but very sharp stems which cause us not a little agony since we go barefoot. Other trees are doing the same – many of the frangipani trees are now totally bare of leaves; and our teak trees are looking very decrepit indeed.

But up in the tea plantations the jacaranda are in full bloom. I remember them from southern Africa blooming just in advance of the rainy season – the central square in Harare outside Meikles Hotel was a lilac carpet of fallen blossoms. And this morning I was having my tea on the roof as usual when I noticed a feathery pale yellow blossom on the floor beside my chair. Yes – the big tree had not only put out new green shoots but is also flowering. This is a very brief but lovely time – it’s all over in a week – since the blossoms have a sort of jasminey scent which drifts over the cottage in the light morning airs.

I asked Thirupathi this morning the name of the tree – in Tamil it is Vaahai Maram – maram means tree. An internet search tells me we are the proud possessors of a very healthy East Indian Walnut, Albizia Lebbeck. Any Seychelles friends reading this blog will know it as Bois Noir.