Category Archives: travel

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.

Floral tributes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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To the hills!

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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.

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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.
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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!]
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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.

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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.

Gingee

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bird-watching in Tamil Nadu

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You don’t have to be a dedicated twitcher to get pleasure from bird watching in Tamil Nadu.  Whether you are in town, in the country or on the road there is always something to see. When we lived in Chennai I got considerable pleasure from sitting with my morning coffee on our upstairs terrace watching the visiting bulbuls and mynahs, the whiskery coppersmith barbet and the flameback – a species of woodpecker – who regularly tried to make an impression on our neighbour’s metal chimney.

In the front garden we saw kingfishers and flights of parakeets.   We sometimes welcomed small hawks. There was one memorable occasion when we played host to a very bemused owl who had suffered some kind of trauma – we never discovered what. We offered him some water and some mince as well as protection in an outbuilding.  He stayed for two nights and then vanished as suddenly as he arrived.

My evening swim at the Madras Club was accompanied by the shrieks of parakeets and occasionally by some small bats (OK not birds but they were flying) snatching a drink from the pool as I swam up and down. The gardens at the Club contain some very large old trees providing a home for many birds including hoopoes and woodpeckers.

On long drives a study of the telephone wires will reveal drongos, bee-eaters, Indian rollers, swallows and swifts as well as an occasional hawk.  In the paddy fields of course you find the Paddy Bird or Pond Heron as well as hosts of egrets and cormorants.  Egrets come in several varieties including little, great and intermediate – what ignominy for an egret to be “intermediate”.

Every trip provides the opportunity to tick off a few more birds from the book.

Orange County Resort produced not just a spectacular crop of birds but Ganapathy, a very knowledgeable guide who was so delighted that we were interested in the birds as very few visitors seemed to notice them.

You don’t have to go far off the beaten track to find outstanding wetland reserves with water birds of astonishing size and variety – Vedanthangal near Chennai is a short detour from the main highway.  Winter breeding species include painted storks, pelicans, spoonbills and ibis who are so close that you feel you can almost touch them.

We now spend part of the year at a house at the foot of the Palani Hills where there is a group of excellent homestays.   Visiting ornithologists have identified 185 species of birds in the valley – we haven’t seen all of them by any means but you can knock off 20 or 30 without moving far from your chair.  As I have been writing this a lovely little sunbird has paid his daily visit to our window to check his reflection. And I can hear the red wattled lapwing and the peacocks calling through the open door.

To become a bird watcher in India all you need is some patience, a reasonable pair of binoculars and a copy of the Field Guide to the Birds of India. Enjoy.

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.
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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.