Category Archives: travel

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.

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.

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.

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.