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Contrasts of Southern India - Jules Mahoney

Blog post   •   Feb 18, 2010 14:28 GMT

Sunday Jan 18

Arrive Bangalore airport in the cool pre dawn after a cramped & uncomfortable flight in the steerage of a packed plane. Met by tour leader Annie, & when all gathered, to hotel by coach & to bed for troubled & restless sleep. My bedroom large & clean, though bathroom less impressive as bath looked as if builders mixed their cement in it, & then stubbed out their ciggies. Hotel itself is attractive, & built round large open atrium where we eat.

I miss both the 10am walk & the noon lunch due to fatigue, but make the 2pm bus tour. We go first to Bangalore Palace which was built c1880 by Maharaja of Bangalore, using British architect I think. It is the most extraordinary mixture of mock Tudor, Victorian Gothic, & Norman a la Windsor castle. Inside it has Victorian tessellated tiled floors, Czech glass chandeliers, Belgian mirrors, hammer beams & a plethora of Tudor roses. There is a huge elephant’s head on the wall in lieu of a stag, & very bad paintings of semi clad Indian girls where you would expect to find the ancestors. The whole is in a bad state of repair, but being slowly restored. The electrical wiring is all looped in swags spaghetti like partout, & the walls are painted lime green & puce, which apparently original but very odd. There is lots of old Victorian furniture left in dusty rooms, & some amazing painted deco bedroom suites. Much lovely wrought iron work abounds around the balconies of the interior courtyards, & a stunning Moorish/Spanish ceramic seat in blue & yellow looks gorgeous in one of these.

The coach then takes us through mad Bangalore traffic to Nandi (the bull’s) temple. To enter any Hindu temple the removal of shoes a prerequisite – we will get used to this. Outside we see our first pulpul tree, filled with fruit bats, birds & tiny striped squirrels while eagles circle overhead. Nandi is impressive & black, & we duly circumnavigate him, paying a few rupees to be blessed.

Next stop Lalbagh botanical gardens, laid out in 1700s by Tipu sultan & his father. Whole of Bangalore seems to have converged here for Sunday stroll & picnics on the ignaceous rock mountain. There is a flower show for Republic Day (26th) in the lovely glass house modelled on crystal palace, but on very much smaller scale. Show very Indian, colourful & kitsch, & packed to gunnels with people.

Bangalore is quite cool at 1000m above sea level. Its name originally meant baked beans city, but modified a bit by Victorian English to avoid flatulent connotations. It has a population of c 7million & is the IT capital of India.

Monday 19th Jan

Leave at 8am on bus for a day in the country. It takes nearly 1 hr to get out of Bangalore as streets are clogged with traffic – rickshaws (like Italian ‘ape’), bikes, mopeds, buses, cars, lorries, white ambassador saloon taxis (very 50s) – all fighting for position, hand on horn, no lane discipline, no priority to anyone, all quite mad, but it seems to work. Modern buildings jostle with old, large with small, commercial with residential, all higgledy piggledy together. Pavements teem with people, all walk purposefully (unlike Maroc), no obesity, no beggars, & all women beautifully clad in vibrant coloured saris.

We drive into dry & dusty but wooded countryside – eucalyptus, tamarind & coconut palms, betal nut palms, bananas, & mango orchards. Also many dry, harvested rice paddies with their haystacks of rice hay constructed in the shape of an old fashioned hovis loaf & raised on a wooden platform to protect from monsoon/rats I suppose. There are also great piles of coconut husks drying for fuel & other purposes – no part of the coconut is ever wasted. The village houses are small & ramshackle, brightly coloured, dun or white, thatched or tiled, bedecked with washing, & with goat, cow or buffalo grazing. People in fields are threshing by hand in the Hardy’s Wessex manner (ignoring the saris), but also many brand new John Deere tractors to be seen.

We arrive at our destination after 2 hours, having picked up local guides & provisions en route. We walk at a leisurely pace through thorny, brambly undergrowth, & thence to open country with huge grey rocks to our right, one shaped like an elephant. Our guide points out small holes in the cliffs where the eagles nest, & dark blobs hanging from high on the rock which are bee hives. The rock is again ignaceous I think. We walk over a ridge to find a small Hindu temple on a rise ahead. A huge area where we walk had been a fort built in 1700s by Tipu Sultan, parts of the magnificent walls & watchtowers of which remain, miraculously, as built with only stone foundations often stepped up the rock incline.

Over another ridge we come upon a lotus pond – all flowers dead, but the beautiful distressed bronze poppy like seed heads remain. Eagles circle overhead again, & one swoops low. We see frogs in rock pools, & then back to base camp for delicious picnic lunch prepared by Indian guides. After this, various of our number bravely absail down a small but vertical rockface to much cheering. Thence to the lake where we take turns in fours to row out in a spherical coracle (there are more coracles but no more life jackets). We get stuck on a rock in the middle, but manage to free ourselves without damage. We see many long tailed monkeys swinging from trees by the lake, & are told by our guide that leopards have been seen by villagers a few weeks previously. We take a different road back to Bangalore & stop to see silk worms spinning their cocoons in huge bamboo nesting wheels – fascinating. Stop for tea in very ‘humble’ café, fight traffic back to hotel for another delicious dinner.

Tuesday Jan 20

8 am departure with luggage. Countryside is very similar to yesterday, but gradually becomes greener & more fertile as we drive. Earth is rich red & moist & there are some flooded paddies with green shoots appearing. There is an occasional lake but no visible sign of irrigation despite it being a long while since monsoon. Stop for coffee mid morning, then arrive after noon at the huge 10th century Jain monolith which is Lord Bahubali at Sravanabelgola. He is 56ft tall & reached by ascending 600steps barefoot to his open roofed square temple courtyard. He is impressive & worth the climb. Robert & George ascend by bamboo palanquin – do not envy descent in particular which looks vertical. We are blessed by the priest (after proffering rupees) & receive a red dot between the eyebrows.

We continue journey to Hassan & arrive at lovely Hoysala Village Resort around 2.15pm. Our rooms are wonderful bungalows with steeply pitched roofs & state of the art modern bathrooms, set in beautiful gardens where all the plants bear their Latin name tag. There is a lovely but very refreshing pool where I have a brisk swim after a plate of mixed pakora lunch. I shall like it here, though very chill in the evenings.

Wednesday 21 January

8.30 start across similar terrain to yesterday, though less wooded & more agricultural. Most signage is now in Kanada instead of English. Two temples on the agenda for today, both Hindu. First Belur, which is home to 12th century Chennakesava Temple – set in huge courtyard & covered in exquisite sculptures in the soapstone of which it is constructed. There are female figures, bands of elephants (no 2 the same) musicians, dancers, deities, & inside the sanctum contains Krishna with his consorts.

The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebid is also huge, exquisitely carved, & with 2 massive statues of Nandi. It is surrounded by green lawns & set beside a lake. There is a wonderfully colourful market with great heaps of fresh fruit, veg & spices, & the town too is bustling with activity & colour. We return to our hotel via a different route, but countryside similar – fertile, many buffalo, many windmills (energy) on top of a long ridge. Few are turning. Late lunch at hotel, then a swim & sunbathe whilst chatting to Annie & Ruth.

I walk down track through fields to a hamlet where the air smells of caramel (sugar cane?) & hand threshing going on but too far to see what. Back to hotel for hour long Ayurdurvic massage which is fab & seems to have got rid of headache I’ve had since flight, at last. At 7.30 the magician arrives – he is brilliant. Not only does he do very clever tricks, he also has terrific sense of humour – so it is all great fun. He makes George look as if peeing down his trouser leg (oh joy!), many tricks with cards & little balls,spits out dozens of long nails, blows smoke from a ball of fire in his mouth, & materialises Linda’s ring from the centre of a banana in a bag (& carefully washes it before return). Supper & so to bed.

Thursday 22 January

Sad to leave our lovely hotel (with many facilities we didn’t have time to use). Drive through green & fertile agricultural land – sugarcane, rice, lentils, coconut palms etc. All looks quite affluent, with village houses well kept. We stop to watch bricks being moulded from red mud before being dried in sun prior to firing. A little later we stop to watch sugar cane pulp being boiled, strained & poured into moulds (jaggery) for onward transportation. These are just roadside activities rather than big industrial enterprises, and workers paid a pittance.

At length to Tipu Sultan’s summer palace on an island site in the Kavari river. First we visit the 9th century Sri Rangananatha temple, with monkeys climbing over the impressive gateway. Then to walk by the river & watch people washing themselves or their clothes, slapping them on the flat white rocks. Good bird spotting for the twitchers here as there is a bird sanctuary nearby. Next to summer palace itself, whose very modest exterior & manicured gardens hide a wealth of treasures inside. There is not an inch of undecorated space on the interior walls – there are beautiful wall murals depicting the battles between the British & Tipu Sultan (with the French on his side), & whole walls of small pictures of the dignitaries of Mysore. This is extraordinary as it is a Muslim palace, & as we know it is strictly verboten to depict the human form. The remaining walls, columns, ceilings are all covered in stunning Islamic patterns. There are also exquisite wooden fretwork balconies around a central square & within this an exhibition of prints & paintings, including some delightful sketches of the sultan’s children.

After this we have time to wander by the river again before boarding the coach for the short drive to Tipu’s father’s mausoleum. It is an intricately carved beautifully proportioned structure, domed & white, modelled on the Taj Mahal but to a much smaller scale. Inside are the tombs of Tipu sultan, his father & his mother, & the whole is completely covered in brilliant Pugin like decoration. Built c1780 & quite stunning.
Late lunch taken at a hotel in lovely setting by the river, where food delicious. A Bollywood movie being filmed adjacent to lunch spot, & lovely Linda went & chatted up the aging matinee idol star (biggest name in S India), had tea & her picture taken with him. Then we had group pic taken with him & all v jolly – Ramesh our guide hugely excited by it all.

Back on coach to St Philomena’s Cathedral in Mysore. A very strange edifice, built in 1932-42, a copy of Koln cathedral on much smaller scale & in gothic/30s style, if you can imagine that. Where there should have been stained glass in the windows there is opaque painted glass – or perhaps not even glass? There are huge bee’s nests hanging from the gothic arches, which possibly the most interesting thing about it.

Eventually to lap of luxury at Sandesh the Prince hotel, the only 4* of the trip & very nice too. Dinner excellent, & after to next door silk shop with Linda, Kathy & Ruth. Shown many shawls & scarves, some are purchased, & Linda orders whole silk outfit to be made up in 24hrs! Then a stroll up the road before back to bed. Mysore a huge improvement on Bangalore – small & quiet in comparison.

Friday 23 January

A morning visit to temple at Chamundeshwari on Chamundi Hill. We see beautiful views of the city beneath us as we wind round the hairpin bends to the summit. We get hassled by post card/souvenir sellers comme d’habitude as we descend from bus, & find many cows & buffaloes grazing on the tarmac between the motor bikes & mopeds. The temple is ancient & very crowded as it is the Hindu Sabbath – we are all suffering a bit from temple fatigue by now. After the customary lecture from Ramesh, we descend a long flight of steps to another Nandi statue (but they are all v different). I now discover the function of the mangles I have been seeing everywhere by the roadsides – they are to extract the juice from the sugar canes by pushing them through the rollers. A refreshing & popular drink is made with lime, sugar syrup & ginger (too sweet for me).

Next the coach takes us to a really posh hotel which used to be the sultan’s palace. Very stylish, impressive & grand with manicured gardens, an aviary, & beautiful restaurant & ballroom in Wedgewood style. An exquisite horse & regency carriage await outside the main entrance. No pictures of this as battery gone flat. Then on to Mysore City Palace which is a typical Indian hybrid of Brighton Pavilion regency with some Victorian Gothic thrown in. Built by Brit. architect Henry Irwin in 1912 after an earlier wooden palace was destroyed by fire. It has a very splendid interior with melange of bright colours & designs; there is a fabulous stained glass dome painted with peacock motif, gold painted cast iron pillars, & lovely mosaic floors. The principal colour is turquoise. The palace is the main tourist attraction of south India apparently. We see both an elephant & a camel tethered in the gardens.

For lunch we have a thali, for which have little appetite as seem to have eaten so much last few days. Then we wander Mysore streets with Annie, looking for a bank, P.O. & boy to mend my falling apart Clarks sandals. We manage all this, & fascinated to watch cobbler patch the soles by using bits of other old shoes, cutting to fit, gluing then sowing – all for 100 rupees. We see many bright yellow dyed Friesian cows being milked on the streets, various pierced & fretted wooden balconies & doors reminiscent of Turkey, & a fabulous market; great heaps of wonderfully fresh fruit, veg & herbs (quite a few I don’t recognise) all being constantly refreshed by dowsing with water. No tat here, just the lovely produce & the odd vibrant powder paint stall. Then on to the silk shop – charming assistants show us great piles of beautiful coloured silk shawls & scarves, patterned or plain, embroidered or not, long or square. We are given tea, George is hugely rude as ever, & I buy cotton kurtas for P & me. (They shorten P’s within ½ an hour.) Another good day.

Saturday 24 January

Leave Mysore via well irrigated agricultural land, & thence to wild life reserve where elephants, tigers etc allegedly roam, but we see only a little bambi & a few rhesus monkeys by the roadside. Vegetation has now become much drier & dustier, & we wind on through this after a coffee stop where we buy useful bird book, until we eventually arrive at the hills. We wind up & up, round tortuous hairpin bends with steep drops all planted with vibrant green tea bushes shaded by eucalyptus & acacia. Eucalyptus were brought in by Brits from Tasmania for fabric manufacture & to shade pickers while they work, but they are not a good thing as they leach all the nutrients & water from the soil. Despite this they are everywhere we go for the next 3 days. The tea plant is of the camelia family, & the leaf tips are picked once a month, but some terraces so steep can’t imagine how they do it. Lunch taken in a very ‘humble’ (Annie’s word) café – red onion dhosa, all hot, crisp & delicious. Then on to highest point in S India (or 2nd highest, depending who you listen to) Dodabetta at 2623m. Little carrot & radish stalls line the path to the observation point, as these roots reputedly wonderfully sweet in this region, & we see many terraces where they are cultivated. Views from summit stupendous, & clouds drift smokily below us.

Next stop is the tea factory which is disappointing as the machinery is not functioning today, so we can only read the information boards & look at dead machines. We do learn a fair amount about tea however – it was originally imported from China in the late 1600s by the Dutch & French, who drank it before us, & it was not until the East India Co got in on the act in the 1700s that the Brits got hooked, & also discovered a native variety in Assam, which made cultivation easier. Also discovered origin of TIPS – a box placed on each table in Indian tea garden, labelled To Insure Prompt Service. But surely that should be Ensure, & thus Teps? Tour ended with the most disgusting paper cup of cardamom infused tea heavily laced with sugar & condensed milk. So disgusting, & so looking forward…

Eventually arrive exhausted at Holiday Inn Gem Park, Ooty. Fabulous views over the town from its vantage point on the hill, but a modern building showing its age a bit, & swimming pool empty of water. My bedroom has massive picture window & comfortable sofa beside. Wood fire in the bar before dinner, delicious food taken in restaurant with Chinese décor which pleased George not at all, despite meal being ethnically Indian as ever. Post prandially & against better judgement, am persuaded by Annie to visit hotel shop. Fall in love with embroidered Kashmiri rug which I think to be worth c £50, but am somehow persuaded to part with £200, in cash, which we have to go into Ooty to obtain from cash machine, me pillion & sans skid lid but clad in shopkeeper’s leather jacket, on his vespa. Have somehow been persuaded by Annie & shopkeeper, even though I know I am being conned. Only self to blame, & fortunately I do like the rug.

Sunday 25th January

Bus takes us to Hungaford tea estate, c 15 kms from Ooty. We pick up Rajneesh, our local Todi guide en route. He is a charming & knowledgable man but unfortunately an alcoholic who keeps nipping off for ‘bananas & water’. The Todi are a small tribe with their own customs & religion (more of which later) who were given their own land in perpetuity by the British in the late 19th century. Nice to know we get some things right.
Walk up through vibrant green tea bushes, & poke our heads into a very smokey eucalyptus distillery. Then up the wooded hillsides, through eucalyptus & acacia, all Brit planted, & climb quite steeply up little paths through the tea plantations to the summit where we take our picnic lunch surrounded by stunning 360 views. The vistas are of tea, forest, beautiful snake like blue /green reservoirs built by the Brits in the 1920s, with a backcloth of blue peaks, hazy in the distance. On our descent we walk through our first native woodland where we see wild coffee bushes, whose berries are not for human consumption though enjoyed by wildlife, & a couple of wild orchids clinging to tree branches. The forest has a high canopy which looks dense from above but is airy beneath & easy to walk through; called Shola forest.

When we reach open ground & a reservoir, there are many water birds – cormorant, egret, heron & tern. Raj also points out animal poo which is many & various – fox, wild dog, wild boar, monkey, hare, deer etc. All too shy to show. Raj will not bring Indians to this reserve as they have no understanding of preserving the peace & beauty of place & would desecrate with litter – he brings only English, French & the odd American. We climb a steep slope to meet the bus at a public car park where there are many Indians & the litter is appalling. Back to Ooty around 5 ready for tea.

Monday 26th January Republic Day

Today is a national holiday & there are crowds at Ooty station awaiting the train (we have booked in efficient rambler-type way). The livery for all the stations on the toy train to Coonoor is sky blue, & there is lovely signage for both male & female waiting rooms, station master’s office etc. It is all very 40s & Brief Encounter. On the train there are hard upright wooden seats & no glass in the windows. We have to sit in our allocated numbered place or trouble will ensue. We leave promptly at 9.10 for our 1 hour journey & chug slowly through luxuriant terraced hillsides growing mainly carrots in the rich chocolatey earth. The villages are a collection of brightly coloured dwellings dotted over the hillsides & there are flowers in profusion – white lilies, blue morning glories, orange & butter yellow nasturtiums & many more, plus of course the ubiquitous eucalyptus & acacia. Spiced lentil patties & tea can be bought at a station en route, as the Indians are never known to miss an opportunity for retail therapy, particularly of the edible kind.

At bustling Coonoor the bus meets us to deliver us to the Nonsuch tea estate & a fabulous day’s walk with Rajneesh, who today becomes progressively more inebriated as the day progresses, & more & more ‘water & banana breaks’ are taken. We walk on a good track through the estate, with fabulous 360 views of the blue mountains surrounding us in the distance. There are many little birds twittering in the acacia trees which it is fun to identify with the help of the Mysore bird book, & a plethora of beautiful unidentifiable butterflies flutter across our path. We meet a party of charming little girls, all dressed in school uniform, & all with wonderful thick ropes of black plaits looped either side of their heads. We take photos & they insist on performing a song & dance for us accompanied by much giggling.

We then ascend through fairy woods with curling tree roots, ferns, lichens & wild flowers, to overgrown steep stone steps up which we clamber to the summit – Droog watchtower or Tipo sultan’s lookout post. It is now an unsightly cement structure covered in graffiti, & at present occupied by a group of inebriated & overly friendly youths who press us to share their chicken & rice – an offer declined by all. We settle for lunch slightly further on, on top of the world, where Linda stands & serenades us with her lovely soprano, whilst we perch on the baking rocks drinking in the amazing view – all clouds beneath, with peaks rising up as if from the sea. After our picnic we descend by the same route & as the track flattens we see 3 huge bulls amongst the tea bushes, but fail to photograph as they keep putting their heads down. George does not disappoint expectations & is as inept both physically & socially as ever (I am losing all patience), & as Raj gets more pissed he expresses his admiration for me – mostly for how far & fast I can walk at my advanced age. Back to bus by 5, then to Ooty by bus all way by 6. Lovely day.

Tuesday 27 January

To Todi land – dry pastures, mountains shrouded in mist, indigenous forest, grey skies & initially even a few drops of rain. Then gradually the sun peeps through as we walk the narrow pathways through pasture & woodland. It is all shola forest, with a high iridescent red canopy & airy undergrowth, where moss, lichens & orchids grow & the ancient trees are all twisted & bent. We come out of the woods on to open grassland where the grey mist rolls across the ground like smoke. We stop to view a Todi temple, with its tiny circular door only means of ingress. Men only are allowed entrance, after a night of enforced purifying & fasting in the forest. They can then enter, light a ghee lamp & silently pray. Boy babies are blindfolded from birth when in the outside world, then at 1 yr the blindfold is ceremonially lifted at the temple door – their first sight must be of the inner temple. Indoors with mother they may see. Children are pledged to each other from a young age, but can opt out if they find they are not suited. They live together at 18, but do not marry until the girl is pregnant, so if infertile may not marry at all.

We carry on with our walk & descend over volcanic rock, then through the tea plantations & carrot terraces to be met by the bus at about 1pm. It is grey & rainy back in Ooty, but after the worst of the downpour has abated we (Linda, Kathy & Ruth) set off for Mahon’s department store. It is charmingly dated, existing in a 40s/50s timewarp. I buy some pretty painted porcelain door knobs for 60r each (I later find them for 15r in Kochin). We then fight our way through the teeming streets with the intention of gaining the Fern Hotel, another of the Maharaja of Mysore’s very ornate Victorian summer palaces recently converted to a hotel.

Eventually get nearly to the station & decide to get a tut tut as seems too far to walk. All four of us pile in & career up the hill to the palace, where a wild boar runs across our path as we arrive. It is a rather ugly place, though grand, with lots of heavy dark wood & sombre colours, but we take an enjoyable & stylish afternoon tea & biscuits in the conservatory overlooking the formal garden. We then have a completely hysterical tut tut ride back, even more crammed into an even smaller vehicle with a fairly mad (even for Indian standards) driver.

Wednesday 28 January

A long day today, & we leave Ooty behind at 6.30. We drive through the mountains to Coonor more or less following train track, & then continue, descending round hairpin bends with many near hits & scary moments, through the high Western Ghats until eventually reaching the valley floor. We stop for coffee; the weather is very close, muggy, sunless & uncomfortable. I doze as we progress through dusty farmland – rice paddies, sugar cane etc- & at some point we traverse the Manchester of S India which goes on forever – teeming streets, shops, small businesses, woodyards, brickworks etc. We notice how everything begins to look more affluent – houses built of bricks & mortar, 2 or 3 stories high, with gardens, & after the Tamil Nadu /Kerala border we stop for lunch adjacent to a garden centre – how bourgeois is that? We see 2 elephants on the road, 1 camel, a few monkeys & all the usual buffaloes & cattle.

After we bypass Cochin we begin to see more waterways with riceboats, Chinese fishing nets, & the ubiquitous water hyacinth which chokes so many channels. We turn off the main drag to travel for over an hour over bumpy tracks into the vrai Keralan backwaters (God’s own country) where vegetation all green, lush & tropical. We cannot distinguish water from land the hyacinths grow so thickly. There are lots of busy little settlements, clean & bright with people going purposefully about their business. Eventually we arrive at our beautiful hotel – a fabulous infinity pool looks towards the infinity lake (water brackish), & we are domiciled in lovely bungalows with pitched roofs, a/c (necessary) & huge bed, in the tropical gardens. A handful of musicians play before & during supper (food as delish as ever), & afterwards big fat toads croak at each other in the ornamental pools, they are very tame & it is fascinating to watch their inflated throats pulsating as they ululate. We watch 2 quarrel fiercely over matters territorial.

Thursday 29 January

Impossible to oversleep due to cacaphoney of jungle type noises which start pre dawn – cawing, squawking, chattering & cooing. After breakfast we leave from the hotel jetty for a mornings cruise with our new local guide Madu. It is so beautiful words fail. The lake is quite flat & rippleless, created by the English using Dutch engineers. The water hyacinth (S American import) are controlled naturally as they are killed by the salt water every year when the sluice gates are opened in the monsoon, but at present they are everywhere choking the canals/creeks.

We cruise down the coast a while (lake c 78k long) & turn right down a canal bordered by colourful dwellings. A busy life is going on everywhere- women doing the washing, men dredging for mud or gravel to be used elsewhere, mending or coiling fishing nets, or dredging for mussels using nets & rakes in the lake. There are birds everywhere – kingfishers (much larger than ours), beeeaters, egrets, snakebirds, cormorants, terns, herons etc. We continue down narrow stretches of water, then come out into a huge expanse of flat lagoon bordered by palms & rice paddies, built on reclaimed land & which give 2 crops a year. Lotus & water hyacinth float by.

We return to hotel & I take lunch in my room. In the afternoon we meet up with Annie & the charming Madu for a walk round the local village. Most Keralans are very small in stature, & we see many diminutive men with stick like legs pottering around in their dhotis (white) or lunghis (coloured). The women wear a long shift (like a nightie) for doing the chores, & a sari for going out – this is purely practical I imagine. The vegetation is all hugely luxuriant, & there are plenty of hens scuttling around in the dirt. We end up in the toddy shop where the men go to get drunk on coconut toddy (it has an aftertaste of dirty old socks). A very ethnic experience & not on the usual tourist trail.

Back at the hotel, very hot & clammy, I plunge into the infinity pool for my 30 lengths, & leave as the sun is sinking towards the horizon & a beautiful golden path leads diagonally across the pool to the lake beyond. A traditional Kathakali dancer comes to demonstrate his art before dinner but not hugely riveting & insects horrendous tonight.

Friday 30 January

Dawn walk with Annie. We watch the sun come up in a great amber ball over the still, flat water behind the inky silhouettes of the palm trees; the light is pearly & iridescent over the lagoon; magical. We see many birds, notably a pair of ibis, & we are charmed by a duck farm with its flock of fluffy ducklings. There are plenty of locals around at this hour, all taking ready pasted toothbrushes, soap, & shaving requisites down to the clean waterway to do their morning ablutions; all as friendly & charming as ever, & I take a picture of one particularly delightful girl & her toothbrush.

After breakfast we take the boat down the coast again to a bird sanctuary. We pass many rice boats, fishermen, trawlers for dead mussels (for the lime) & dredgers for mud. The water is very shallow in parts, often only waist high; deeper channels are marked by bamboo poles. We disembark at the sanctuary for a stroll through the tropical woods; we see lots of pretty butter & dragon flies, 2 salamanders (I miss these) & the odd kingfisher, but disappointingly few birds – less than normal.

We then stroll down to the really posh Taj hotel where we sit on a terrace overlooking a manmade lake & gardens, enjoying seriously expensive drinks accompanied by exquisite service. Back to the boat for a sunny but delightfully breezy trip back to the hotel. Afternoon is spent relaxing by the pool tho’ sun now absent & all very hazy. A rather lovely Indian flautist plays before dinner.

Saturday 31 January

Onto the bus with baggage again for Cochin. We stop after an hour or so at a coir factory, one of many in Kerala, & one of a small proportion that makes a profit. Kerala is a very efficiently run communist state, with very high literacy rates, & has functioned thus for many years. This factory is run as a co-operative with all the workers & their families sharing the profits, which accrue despite the fact that there is no power at all in the works, all machinery being operated by hand. The coir is first spun by the women down a long hall, a method I have seen on TV, as practised in the lofts of Chatham harbour in 18th century. The men bleach then dye the coir in big cauldrons (gorgeous terracotta & crimson to name but 2), & it is then woven, again by men, on the big wooden looms. Coir is made from coconut husk – no part of the coconut is ever wasted in India.
On to Cochin where it is very hot. Some have a 2 min paddle in the Arabian Sea before being chivvied on to the Dutch church, first built in 1500s by the Portuguese, then rebuilt by the Dutch in 1700s. It is quite plain – white walls & heavy dark wood vaulted ceiling, Georgian in style, but has huge punka (fans) down the side aisles to be worked from outside the building by punka wallahs.

We stroll on past Vasco da Gama’s house & stop by the Chinese fishing nets for a demonstration, in which we are persuaded to assist. Unfortunately we bring up only plastic & detritus, as expected really. Cochin is built on 3 islands made of reclaimed land (Dutch heritage) & is an extremely busy industrial & commercial city. We are at present in the old city, Fort Cochin, the pretty part. We lunch in a delightful lakeside restaurant & hotel where I wish we were staying – food delicious & garden charming with big terracotta statues of horses heads, elephants & warriors.

After lunch we go to Matancherry Palace which is very hot, airless & sticky. There are some Hindu frescoes, 3 large & magnificent palanquin, & quite a lot of rather bad paintings. Glad to get out. The Jewish synagogue & clocktower are closed so we view from outside, then walk through Jew Town where shops look sooo enticing. Back to bus to be taken to hotel in centre of commercial Ernakulam – why are we staying here? Hotel v modern & swish with huge atrium many stories high, but room quite small & environs hideous.

After a less than exciting supper for which we have to wait as restaurant so crowded, Kathy, Linda, Ruth & I go out in search of festivities at Shiva temple (these should last for several days). The streets are hot, noisy & polluted & we cannot find the temple. Eventually after much enquiry, we find a temple to Varda, which is all brightly coloured fairy lights, a pyramid of ghee lamps, coloured images etc. There is quite a large compound which we traverse bare foot to find a small group of musicians on the opposite side. On our return we talk to a charming family of 3 boys + father & sweetest little girl whom he carried. Ruth took photos & they told us of more celebrations tomorrow.
Back at hotel the young night receptionist tells us he has been training with his sister as a Katherkali dancer since the age of 6. He will show us photos tomorrow.

This is where Jules left her tour and went on to Goa independently….


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