Category Archives: General

General information about Tamil Nadu

Flower power


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.

The Andaman Islands (1)


The Andaman and Nicobar Island chain stretches from just above the northern tip of Indonesia (Banda Aceh – where the 2004 tsunami originated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog) to south-west of Rangoon, now Yangon. The Andamans can be visited from Chennai or Kolkata, but the Nicobars are off-limits to tourists due to the Stone Age tribal communities which still live there – you may remember seeing aerial footage of spear-shaking men (on North Sentinel Island) trying to scare off a military helicopter which was checking up on their island post-tsunami.

In passing, one of the groups which do communicate now and again with anthropologists explained that they survived the tsunami since they recognised the animal behaviour and followed them as they fled inland. This is perhaps an ancient memory of previous tsunamis passed down through the generations, in stark contrast to the modern folk near Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India who went out onto the seabed to collect stranded fish as the first wave retreated and were caught and killed by the second.

The Andamans appear in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, where a mysterious death occurs at Pondicherry Lodge and Sherlock Holmes traces the story back to an Englishman and three Sikh accomplices who stole a fortune in Agra, were caught, and sentenced to penal servitude for life in the islands. An Andamanese, armed with a blowpipe and deadly poisonous darts, is the loyal servant of the Englishman, Small, who is trying to regain the treasure.


The British use of islands as jails is well-known all over the world. St Helena, for the Boer prisoners of war; Seychelles for exiles and political prisoners, such as Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda and Archbishop Makarios; and Port Blair for those who fell foul of British rule in India. We have friends in Chennai who, as Indian freedom fighters, were sent to Port Blair and the notorious Cellular Jail.


We visited in 2006 – here are a few photos of the jail – and one surprise for me was to learn that during the Second World War the Andamans were occupied by the Japanese. The Cellular Jail is now a national monument, and among the exhibits are souvenirs of the occupation – a newspaper advertising lessons in conversational Japanese, for example, and currency notes – and pictures of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was controversially allied with the Japanese, raising the Indian flag of Independence for the first time on Indian soil.

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.

Tamil Nadu?

We could be spending the winter in Britain where the weather is foul but where we have electricity 24 hours a day and TV at the press of a switch. Instead we have chosen to spend our time in Tamil Nadu. Tourists to India do make it to Tamil Nadu but usually only after they have done the golden triangle – of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – and have experienced the beaches of Goa and the Kerala backwaters.

But we’ve been fortunate. We lived in Tamil Nadu for nearly 6 years while I was working here, and have been coming back regularly for short or, in Phil’s case, longer visits in the 6 years since then. The magic we discovered in our very first visit has not worn off. This year for the first time I am able to spend 3 months here, based at the cottage which is owned by Tailored Eco-Tours, our Indian company.

We’ve started this blog to share some of our experiences and our enthusiasm for this lovely little-known state and its delightful people. Watch this space.