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Thousand  Journeys



Part Two

Day 7

We had booked ourselves onto a half day trek in the afternoon, and so we simply lazed away the morning, lying on couches by open windows and listening to the breeze rustling the treetops. At midday we were picked up in a rickshaw and after the usual red tape of buying tickets and filling in forms at two different offices at either ends of the town ........ we were finally allowed to start walking.

The trek was a newly organised one and is marketed as the “Clouds Walk”. However clouds tend to be morning things in Periyar and at 2pm there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Instead it was as hot as a lap dancers thong. The route was a simple circle, that began with climbing up to the top of the tallest hill, walking along the ridge taking in the spectacular views (with or without clouds), and descend again via the tribal villages.

The only problem with the schedule was that climbing the tallest hill in the midday sun proved to be an extreme physical experience. Our guide Augustine turned out to be a great story teller, and he worked hard to lift our spirits and strengthen our resolve to reach the summit of the hill. He started by relaying stories of local heroes and heroines who had tamed tigers and avenged the death of husbands killed by evil kings. He then went on to describe how he once carried an overweight 85yr old German lady all the way to the top of the hill. Feeling both inspired and shamed for only being marginally fitter than an obese octogenarian we managed the final gasping steps up to the summit.

In celebration Augustine sung us a Malayalam hymn as we rested and took in the view. From the top of the hill we could see the entirety of Kumily town as well as the plains of Tamil Nadu stretching out into the far distance. Turning around we were faced with the vast area of jungle that makes up Periyar Tiger Reserve. Here and there we can spot huts and small hamlets clinging to the sides of the hills, but for the most part it remains an unspoiled wilderness.

We start walking along a ridge heading towards the lookout point at the head of a lush green valley. However we meet a local goat herder who tells Augustine that there are elephants nearby, and so plans change as we make a detour to try and find them. Augustine took it as a matter of honour that he would show us some wild elephants, and so he disappeared ahead to track them down, whilst Jane and I sauntered along the main path, listening to the exotic birdsong and admiring the plants. It was not long before we found Augustine waiting, and he beckoned us to follow him up a tiny animal track that wound its way into the bush.  After a lot of scrabbling along this obscure path and through thick undergrowth, we emerge (somewhat worse for wear) onto a small rocky plateaux, and there across the other side of the valley are three wild elephants munching their way through the forest.

As we sit and admire them we begin to discuss the various merits of elephants, of which memory, intelligence and resourcefulness feature highly. In order to illustrate this Augustine tells us a story;

A little while ago there lived a farmer in a neighbouring area. He lived in a small treehouse right at the edge of the forest, and cultivated a small patch of land in front of his dwelling. Unfortunately the farmer began to be plagued by a large male elephant who regularly appeared out of the forest at night and ate up most of his crops. The elephant was a fierce beast that took no notice of the shouts and stones thrown by the poor farmer who was powerless against it, and unable to chase it away.

After the third visit from the marauding elephant, the farmer had almost nothing left of his crops and he was in a desperate state. So after discussing the matter with his neighbours, they hatched a plan to teach this rogue elephant a lesson and chase it away for good.

So when the elephant appeared again the farmer was ready, and quickly cooked up a large pan of oil. When this oil was smoking hot, the farmer threw down some vegetables underneath the treehouse, and when the elephant came up to eat them, the farmer emptied the boiling oil on top of the elephant’s back. The elephant went MAD, dashing about, trumpeting loudly, knocking down small trees and trampling everything under foot. But the farmer stayed safe up in his treehouse, out of reach of the elephant. And eventually the burnt elephant retreated into the jungle, and disappeared.

Years passed, and peace and prosperity had returned to the farmers life. He was able to tend his crops without any further difficulties, and had become a local hero for defeating the rogue elephant.

That was until one day, in the middle of the night, a large elephant with scars across his back, came sneaking out of the jungle, and up to the base of the treehouse. The elephant had broken off a piece of bamboo, and purposefully split the end of it. Using his trunk he ever so quietly pushed the bamboo pole up towards the sleeping farmer, and very carefully, and very gently he used the split end of the bamboo pole to grab and entwine the man’s hair. Slowly twisting the bamboo round and around, the elephant tangled up the farmers hair with the split ends of the pole, and by the time the farmer woke with alarm, he was unable to free himself. The elephant then pulled sharply on the pole, and the man came flying head first out of the treehouse. And when he hit the ground the elephant speared him to death with his tusks, before walking back into the jungle, never to be seen again.

Augustine then went on to describe just how dangerous elephants can be, and so we told him one of our own stories, of the first time we travelled to Periyar and trekked through the tiger reserve. We suddenly came face to face with a mother elephant and calf, as they emerged out of a bamboo thicket just fifteen feet from where we were standing. The two of us and our guide froze like statues, and held our breath whilst the mother elephant eyed us up and down, before choosing to walk on by. We thought it was fantastic, but we could tell from our guide’s expression of extreme fear that it was actually far too close for comfort and safety. Even so it was an exhilarating experience that was topped off half an hour later when I almost stepped on a cobra!

Augustine was so impressed that he treated us to a cup of tea at the tribal village chai stall. We sat cooling in the shade of the hut, whilst the local tribes people took turns to try on Jane’s sunhat.

Day 8

This was to be another fishing day for Adel and me, whilst Jane was going to have a relaxing day around town and the hotel.

At midday, Adel and I got back into the Qualis and headed out to a small river an hours drive away. Yesterday we had been promised by Anthony that we had a “100% chance” of catching fish here, although this optimistic forecast was now amended to “90% chance”” this morning. We weren’t sure what had happened overnight to result in a 10% drop, but it still sounded like a good bet to us.

When we got there it didn’t look so promising. A small cloudy river, overlooked by a local road. Choosing to make the best of it, we decided to try a shady spot on the far bank, and crossed over a nearby bridge. There was no denying it was a pretty spot, and it reminded me very much of a stretch of river I used to fish in Surrey called Cranleigh Waters. We spied a comfortable looking rock under a large shady tree, and decided to set up from there. It was a perfect position, right above a deep pool, and we could already see numerous small fish dimpling the surface.

It wasn’t long before we were joined by a local fisherman who mimed to us advice on which spots to try and how deep to set the baits. It also wasn’t long before we were discovered by the local children, who had clearly never seen a foreigner up close before. Word got out and over the course of the day there was often a small audience stood on the roadside looking down and marvelling at the strange visitors.

That said it remained a peaceful place and at one point we were treated to the sight of a kingfisher perched on a nearby branch, also doing a spot of fishing. Being a long-time angler, I am used to seeing these gorgeous looking birds, but as with all things, India effortlessly manages to produce a more colourful, and more exotic version. This kingfisher sitting opposite us was such an intensely dazzling shade of electric blue that it was difficult to look at.

Sadly this amazing bird did not stay for long, and with a quick swoop, he picked up a small fish in his beak, and flew off downstream. However the gap he left was soon replaced by a very happy sounding parrot, who spent the next hour talking to himself and whistling at passers-by. We never got to see this bird, but I have never heard such a range of expression from any animal, and it was impossible not to listen to him and smile.

As the sun began to set, we were still waiting for a bite, and so we had to conclude that if there really was 90% chance of catching fish here, then we had obviously come on a 10% day, and nothing could be done. So once again, the fish of India had won.

Meeting up with Jane in the evening, she described how her relaxing day at the hotel had turned into the most dramatic monkey encounter yet. She had been dozing on the couch in the afternoon, when a sudden noise woke her. Opening her eyes she found herself looking directly at a large monkey which had snuck into the room and was sitting by the fruitbowl, just four feet away, with an apple in his hand. Jane screamed, the monkey jumped out to the balcony and Jane scrabbled up to bolt the door shut.

Emergency over, the monkey settled down on the balcony to eat his prize, and Jane settled down, safely on the other side of the glass door to watch him. More monkeys soon arrived, and they could see that fresh fruit was on hand, and they did not want to be denied. First they tried repeatedly to break through the door, even though Jane was a foot away behind the glass. It amazed and disconcerted her that the monkeys had no fear, and that they were greedily eyeing up the remaining contents of the fruitbowl next to her. The situation was getting serious, and various focussed attempts were made to break through the door. When this proved fruitless, they bounded around the front of the building, heading for the main door to the room.

It took a moment for Jane to realise what they were up to, and a desperate race then took place to reach the door before the monkeys could get in. Luckily Jane won, and managed to lock the front door before the monkeys outside could turn the handle and push it open. They were thwarted and they knew it. But far from being gracious in defeat, they took out their frustrations on the outside water filter that was stationed in the hallway. With a great crash they pulled it off its stand, and 30 litres of fresh drinking water poured down the stairs. Not content to leave it at that, they then dismantled the whole system into its component parts, and flung them around the entire area.

And so ended “The Battle of the Fruitbowl”.

Day 9

This was our final day in Kumily. Jane had arranged to visit “The Blue Mango” with Chrissie, while I had my own plans which first involved getting hold of a motorbike.

I spent the morning relaxing and getting some taichi & bagua training in. At 2pm the manager found me and handing me a key said “Chris ... your motorbike is ready” This was exactly what I had been waiting to hear! On my last visit I had plucked up the courage to rent out a motorbike for a day, and set off into the wilds for a mini-adventure. Not only had it been my first time dealing with India’s terrifying traffic, but it was also the first time I had got on a motorbike in over 20 years. Apart from a couple of near-death experiences with on-coming traffic, I had such a wonderful time then, that I had been looking forward to another two-wheeled adventure ever since. And that time had now come.

This time I had been given a Hero Honda Passion, and I confess that I struggled to form a harmonious relationship with it. The gears were in a different sequence, and it was too small to be comfortable for me. However I wasn’t going to let that stop me, and as I wasn’t planning on going far I decided to just get on and make the best of it, and so I wobbled off through town, stopping to put a litre of petrol in the tank along the way. Here I met an unexpected challenge as the petrol station had a small of cows standing in front of the pumps (this is NOT something I am used to seeing in England).

There was a particular area I wanted to explore around the head of the Vaigai Valley in Tamil Nadu. We had passed through it a couple of times in a taxi, and had the chance to explore it much more intimately when we went on the excellent “Bullock Cart Tour” that is run from Kumily. That was an enchanting experience that involved an afternoon of trundling at 4 miles an hour along cart tracks and back roads through this verdant and pretty area. And so I wanted to pick up some of the root of this tour and then go really off the beaten track to see what else was waiting to be discovered.

I had to duck my head as I rode under the barrier that marked the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, after that it was a lovely fifteen minute cruise downhill to the hot plains below. Thankfully there was very little traffic on the road, and I had the luxury of turning off the engine and simply coasting down with a warm breeze against my skin. This was sheer heaven to me, which was made all the sweeter when I reminded myself that normally at this time I would be trapped in some boring meeting or sat behind a computer in a grey office, looking out the window at a dismally damp and cold England. The contrast was like night and day, and I was so glad to have made and effort to get out to wonderful exuberance of India rather than drag through the depths of another British winter.

People cheerily smiled and waved hello as I passed by. I try responding with my own version of the head waggle, but it upsets my balance and I’m in danger of coming off the bike, and so I settle on a hearty “Hello”. At one point I ride by a young boy of about 9yrs and we make each other’s day as we both give each other a formal salute as I pass on by.

Turning off the main road onto a palm-fringed lane I am overwhelmed by how nice it is to ride along.

Further on I pick up a cart track that follows the course of a river, and I stop here and there at my leisure, taking photos and watching the incredible bird life. At one point I come around a corner and ran straight into a large group of dhobi wallahs who were using the surrounding bushes as clothes racks to dry off the freshly washed saris and lungis. It was a blisteringly colourful scene, and they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them.

Further down the road I stopped at a chai stall to rest. I sat in the welcome shade and sipped sweet tea whilst watching a young child effortlessly herd a large flock of goats along the dirt track out front. In the centre of the earthen floor of the hut, sat a tiny, tiny kitten. As small and vulnerable a creature as you could ever imagine, and looking very under-fed and desperately in need of care. If I had found him at home, I would have instantly rescued him, but here in rural India ...... what to do? Running through various options in my head, I soon realised that the only thing I could do was simply wish him well, and hope he survived.

I tried making conversation with the people around me, but we had no common language, and so brief eye-contact and cursory nods were as far as it got.

Outside was a different matter however. Behind the shack were a group of women and a much loved baby boy.

When I asked them through mimes and gestures whether I could take some photos they fell about laughing in shyness and excitement. It’s at times like these that I wish I had one of these portable photo printers as I am sure that giving the gift of a photo would be a wonderful thing.

My final stop was further up the river, by a large weir. The power of the water as it flows out of a deep gorge and comes crashing over the weir was phenomenal. At one point on the bank there were ashes and what must have been human hair, and it was obvious that this spot is used as the local cremation ground.

Parking the bike, and walking up the hill, I followed a path along the top of the gorge just as the sun was setting. It was a deeply peaceful and quiet place, and was one of those rare and treasured times in India when you at last find solitude. As I walked on, I surprised a couple of large hares who loped off into the bushes, and further on I came across yet another troop of monkeys. Unlike the rogues at the hotel, this bunch were very shy and it took a while to get their confidence before I could move in close enough to take a couple of photos.

Feeling good about the world, and having achieved another ambition (but still feeling sorry for the kitten), I returned up the hill and back into Kerala.

The Blue Mango (by Jane)

While Chris was off exploring on his hired motorbike, I had a girl’s day out with my friend Chrissie. We both bundled into a taxi – driven by Chrissie’s favourite driver Sumad – I remember he’d once driven Chris & I from Kumily to Cochin on our last trip a year ago and he was a truly excellent driver. As a matter of fact its very rare in South India to see a good driver, and I’ve yet to see a woman in the driving seat. With the way everyone drives around like maniacs, I felt much more comfortable with Sumad’s capable and experienced driving.

The journey to Blue Mango was to take one and a half hours, and Chrissie and I whiled away the time chatting and enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the Tamil Nadu plains, with their majestic mountains standing like giants as a backdrop in the far distance. Tamil is so very different to Kerala, the people are much poorer for a start, most living either in road-side shacks or in densely populated shanty towns. Tamil Nadu is certainly less touristy than Kerala yet it has its own unique beauty. Its whole ambiance is relaxed and sleepy and the landscape has a dreamlike sacredness about it.


When we finally rolled into Blue Mango women’s cooperative, Chrissie’s friends Tamar and Bruce were nowhere to be seen. Chrissie knows the de Jong family very well and is a regular visitor there. She led me into a workshop and fell into conversation with some of the women,  one of whom showed us upstairs to where the show their colourful goods for retail. I had 2000RS to spend all on women’s jewellery, bags and accessories, made by women for women. I went a bit mad, and bought many gifts for friends back home, and with the money left over, I left as a donation for this worthy cause.

I first visited this place last year with Chrissie and knew all about Tamar deJong’s remarkable work in establishing a women’s fair-trade cooperative workshop, employing many destitude and impoverished Tamil women, some of whom had HIV and AIDS. The working conditions were colourful and glorious, so very different from the sweatshops to be found at many other places in India. We were greeted warmly by everyone with warm beaming smiles, and the atmosphere was of one big happy family.

Tamar and her husband were both born to American Christian missionaries. Tamar grew up in Madagascar, and Bruce in Tamil Nadu. Together they have five children, and are both fluent speakers in Tamil. Bruce is a qualified doctor and has become an Indian national. Although Christian they play it all at a low key and demonstrate great respect for the Tamil religions and culture. Last year I remember them celebrating the Tamil Pongal festival with the workers at the cooperative, and it had been an amazing colourful experience in which we had all participated.

Later that afternoon, Chrissie and I found ourselves at the family residence behind the workshops. A truly wonderful house that looks straight out of the Arabian Nights with its domed roof, water tank and central courtyard. There we were greeted by the family including Tamar’s younger sister Katrina who was visiting for a month. We spent a lazy couple of hours together catching up, and at one point Katrina insisted on making us a pot of “English tea”, unfortunately it was so overloaded with tealeaves that it was strong enough to stand a teaspoon in. Despite their limited tea making skills, they were great people and I felt privileged to meet.

At the end of the afternoon we said our goodbyes to this extraordinary family, and made our way back to Kumily laden with our goodies. As we drove back across the majestic plains I kept a beady eye open for Chris in the faint hope that I would see him flashing by on his motorbike, but sadly it was not to be. Instead we stopped at a chai stall enroute and watched in amazement as the woman there proceeded to decapitate two coconuts with a machete before our very eyes. Small wonder she didn’t chop some of her fingers off in the process.

Finally we arrived back at the hotel and hungrily tucked into two huge slices of chocolate brownie and washed them down with a proper cup of tea. As we waited for Chris to return with tales to tell of his own excursion that afternoon.

Day 10

We said our sad farewells to Chrissie, Adel, Chian and all the staff at the hotel. It was a deep wrench to leave such a beautiful placend such valued and cherished friends. But our time was limited and there were other places to explore, more people to meet. We had the good fortune to be picked up by Joffey who must be a prime contender for the “Safest Taxi Driver in India Award” (God knows we have had a few front runners for the “Worst Taxi Driver in India” over the years).

The road from Kumily to Madurai was easy and pretty, and there can’t be many nicer drives to take in South India. Passing through rice paddies and palm groves with the Western Ghats framing the scene, it was a lovely journey. Eventually the lush green gave way to dramatic and strangely formed red-stone hills, and we passed through a string of brick-making villages that stored their bricks in large pyramid shaped barns.

After 3½ hours we edged our way through the Madurai traffic and pulled up at the Plaza Park Hotel. On our last visit to Madurai we had stayed at Hotel Supreme, and resolved to find somewhere better this time. India Mike and Trip Advisor reviews had suggested that the nearby Park Plaza was marginally better (and the laundry service simply couldn’t be any worse), so it was with high hopes that I approached the lobby and asked about a room.

I was taken up to see an available double room, and my heart sank ......... Man, what a dump! And at £40 per night!!! OK, it wasn’t filthy, but it there is not much better that I can say about it. I explained to the bellboy that this was not acceptable to me, and I returned to the taxi leaving the Plaza staff making a great show of sorrow and lamentation on my exit.

Next stop was the nearby Royal Court Hotel. Now it was my turn to make noises of sorrow and lamentation when they quoted the taffifs as starting at £50 per night and wouldn’t budge on the price. But we liked the place, and biting the financial bullet, we booked in for a couple of nights. With a little hindsight, I’m very glad we did, because the place is great.

After a siesta, we set off for the Meenakshi Temple in the evening. Madurai rickshaw rides are always an invigorating experience, whether by cycle or auto rickshaw, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing the abundance of Madurai flash by in a kaleidoscope of colours, faces, smells and sounds. Even better is the fact that Madurai rickshaws tend to favour the old style manual horns (where you need to squeeze a rubber ball to make a honk out of a curly trumpet). These always remind me of clowns cars, and I love to lay awake at night listening to the various honks and squeeks as I imagine clown races taking place through the streets.

It didn’t take long to get to the temple area, and we walked round the newly pedestrianised road that skirts the temple complex, as a full moon shone down. It was balmy hot, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood, including us. Whether by design or fate, we found ourselves entering the adjacent market area rather than the temple. Last time we were here we had actually managed to miss this amazing place.

Full of tailors, bangle stalls, metalware and book sellers, housed in a part of the temple complex, the place is a wonderful spectacle. Jane trawled the bangle stalls, whilst I took photos before embarking on the difficult decision-making process of choosing a good tailor to make us some clothes. With around 20 of them to choose from, it was a bit daunting.

I had already been touted by a chap claiming to be a master tailor but who was currently beset by various family issues including the death of his wife last week. It didn’t take long to develop serious doubts about the validity of everything he said, but we followed him to his stall to see what he could provide. The stall of this master tailor turned out to belong to someone  totally unrelated and we weren’t impressed with what was on offer. So moving on we passed down the aisle. It was like being shepherded between rows of bullfighters, all of whom would swish out multi-coloured silks and linens in front of us as we walked through.

We stopped at another stall that we liked the look of, and proceeded with negotiations over getting a shirt, a blouse and a pair of trousers made up. Once the textiles were chosen, the styles agreed and the measurements taken, came the part where the price is discussed.

After clocking up nearly a year in India, I am now at a stage where I really enjoy the haggling, with all its subtle drama, layers of psychology and battle of wills. I still have no idea whether I really am paying a fair price, but the principle that I hold to is to only settle a final price that feels good and OK to me.

We started at 2,800RS from the tailor. After some play acting to indicate that this was an obscene request, I told him that we could get them at half that in England (not strictly true but all is fair in the art of haggling). I then put in my counter bid of 600RS at which he was so insulted that his colleagues had to restrain him. Ten minutes later, after more drama from both sides, we arrived at a friendly deal of 1001RS. Why the extra rupee? Who knows, but 500 was paid as a deposit, with the rest to pay tomorrow when we picked them up.

From there we popped into Meenakshi, which was under major restoration work at the time. Not only were all the goporums covered up, but the tank was drained and the main temple area full of wooded scaffolding and planking. A bit disappointing but still a wonderful place to visit.

Day 11

Buffet breakfast at the Royal Court was very pleasant, and greedily I helped myself to croissants followed by idly and sambar, followed by toast and jam, topped off with some fresh pineapple! We were joined by a charming Canadian woman who was taking a more spiritual trip around India than us. She had recently had a hug from the Hugging Mother, and was planning to get a second one before going off to study yoga for a couple of months.

After saying our goodbyes to her, we returned to the Temple Markets, and with uncertain anticipation we picked up our new clothes. They were great. Nicely tailored and fitting perfectly. I was so impressed that I ordered another shirt there and then, and gave the guy a little leaway on the price.

We then ambled around the whole area, laughing with and photographing the local shopholders, and soaking up the atmosphere. A cycle-rickshaw man approached us, offering a tour of the city; Jane wasn’t sure, but its the kind of thing I like to do, so after a little deliberation, the three of us set off.

It turned out to be an excellent decision, as we spent a highly enjoyable afternoon trundling around some really interesting and attractive areas of Madurai. Having already gotten to know some of the main sights of the city last visit, I was keen on exploring some of the lesser known places this time. Our rickshaw guy was called Pandy, and he was a real delight to spend time with, always smiling, always keen to point out items of interest and to make sure we were happy and comfortable.

We started with a visit to the the river banks and saw the spectacle of Madurai’s laundry getting beaten to death (this HAS to be the place where the Hotel Supreme punishes its guests clothes). Next was the local woodyards and the ladder-makers quarter, followed by a suburban village where we stopped to visit weavers, and spinners and metal-beaters. Away from the main centre everyone was friendlier and more relaxed, and I confess that I was amazed to find that we were never asked for a single pen, toffee, English coin, or to purchase anything at all.

That night I stood out on the balcony under an orange glowing full moon, and marvelled that I had so easily travelled to such a wonderful place. I felt the spicy warmth of South India all around me, sensing the sheer abundance and richness of its varied culture and exotic wildlife. I reflected on both how deeply foreign it all remained, but also on how normal it had become for me. I felt grateful that I had made the string of choices that had led me to here, and also felt grateful that Jane shared my love of India and was equally happy to forgo nice, comfortable, easy-going holidays, in favour of the challenges and rewards of the sub-continent.

Day 12

Packing light, we found our taxi and headed east for Ramashwaram. In truth I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that I liked the name, and had picked up from here and there that it was an interesting place with a nice atmosphere.

A couple of hours later as the taxi ascended onto Pamban Bridge, affording us a wonderful panorama of fishing villages, indigo blue sea, and large stretches of white sand, I knew this was going to be good. Actually, Ramashwaram turned out to be wonderful.

We had booked a night at Hotel Tamil Nadu on the beach. At RS420 this was the cheapest place we had stayed for a while, and after a couple of nights at the Royal Court, it definitely felt like slumming it. Ramashwaram has many, many good points, but two things detract from its charm ........ the dirt and the flies. Vast areas of the island are covered (and I mean covered) in litter, and many areas of the town are infested with large, bulbous-bodied flies. Hotel Tamil Nadu had certainly adopted its fair share of both of these blights, and if truth be told, the place is a real dump! We stayed in the annexe which looked like a half-finished experiment in cubist architecture. It was in desperate need of a deep clean and three coats of paint.

We didn’t stay long in the room, not least because it had a very wobbly fan that had come adrift from its mounting points, and which I didn’t dare to examine closer (because I knew that if I did it would result in me spending all night worrying about the physical and psychological damage it would do if it suddenly fell the six feet onto my naked, prone and all too vulnerable anatomy, whilst still spinning at 2000 rpm).

So, deciding to make the best of it, we went for a walk and soon found ourselves at the temple. Having visited a good number of temples in my time, I have come to realise that you never quite know what’s going to happen when you step over the threshold, as it always feels to me like it’s a journey into the subconscious at some level or other. There have been one or two times when these journeys have been remarkable, strange, powerful experiences, and I have found myself spat out at the other end, breathless, stunned and in some way changed; wondering to myself what on earth had just happened? There have also been times when we’ve been turned away or treated with disdain and hostility, and there have been other times when the temple seems lifeless and soulless, devoid of any significance other than the question of whether its all a big sham. Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my different states of mind, or maybe it’s just luck of the draw as to what day you go, and who you meet.

Anyway, this particular day was a good day. A remarkable day. Crossing the threshold, our eyes adjusted to the darker interior as we walked between rows of statues and flickering flame. We were soon pounced on by a group of three men. One looked like security, one was some sort of custodian or guide, and the other was a friendly looking priest who was obviously mute.

The priest and I hit it off immediately, and acknowledged our brotherhood through eye contact, smiles and head waggles. The security guy explained that non-Hindus were only allowed in certain parts of the temple (a restriction we were used to, and which makes the exceptions all the more special). My friend the mute priest winked at me, and gestured that it was all OK. A camera ticket was purchased and we set off with the guide.

It was just as well that we did have a guide, because the temple is a bit of a maze, with many different sections, both inside and out. The experience soon turned into a wild blur as we were led down stone corridors, from room to room, with our guide directing us to do this and do that, using conversation that may or may not have been in English ( I was only picking up about one word in five). The mute priest had been true to his word, and we were suddenly re-directed down a tiny passage way to surprisingly find ourselves in the central section of the temple, and joining the queue for darshan.

I was garlanded, blessed, daubed in sandal, and presented in front of the temple deity. Down a long dark tunnel, deep in the heart of the temple, I could see the golden figure of the deity, lit by devotional fire. It was a mesmerising and powerfully moving sight, that struck at the centre of my being. And then all too quickly we were whisked away. Next began the ritual of the wells.

Ramashwaram temple is famous for its numerous sacred wells, and we were taken from one to another, to be doused in the water from each of them. Thankfully our guide and the priests went easy on us, and we only got wet (whereas the real pilgrims were getting soaked). We joined groups of smiling, saturated Indians, as we slipped and slopped our way from well to well. Sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors, it felt like being part of a children’s’ party game as we were led hither and thither, blessed and splashed, skidding along the wet stone walkways, already polished smooth by centuries of passing pilgrims.

Finally came the main halls. Ancient, magnificent, megalithic and mythological. These architectural wonders are designed to give a perspective of the infinite, and were stunning to see and walk down. At one point we bumped into the temple elephant, at other times sadhus would suddenly appear sitting in the gloom, looking every bit at home as the statues that lined these halls. After more blessings and further exposure to gods, goddesses and universal principles, we were suddenly informed that the tour had finished, and we were free to wander at will. And so we did, in a daze, looking at each other and laughing in wonder.

Eventually we found our way back to the main entrance and as soon as we stepped outside, we got caught up in a passing procession of four hundred singing and clapping men and women, and one guru, carried aloft, sitting in meditation. We declined offers of joining in, as it was by now all getting a bit much for us to take in, and so we headed down to the holy beach to grab a couple of samosas and watch the sunset whilst pilgrims bathed away their negative karma.

Day 13

It wasn’t a good night. Hot, sticky and sleepless. For reasons already mentioned we didn’t stick around Hotel TN, and after a delicious idly and sambar breakfast we piled into the taxi to do a little bit more sightseeing before heading back. First of all we took the road due east that travelled along an increasingly narrowing strip of land.  Our driver pointed to a sandbank a little way out to sea and told us that was the shore of Sri Lanka. It looked so close that you could almost throw a stone onto it.

We got out of the taxi at another temple that marked one of the mythological events in the Ramayana, but instead of going inside I was captivated by a fascinating sight. Just like in the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Omar Sharif gradually appears out of a shimmering mirage, I could see two strange figures in the distance walking on top of the sea. It took me a good minute for my cognition to catch up with my perception as I waited spellbound in the blistering heat.

Caught in the glare of the morning sun, two silhouetted women in the far distance were carrying large pots on their heads and wading through the sea that was no more than twelve inches deep. At first they looked like shimmering aliens with impossibly large heads that were floating across the sea, but bit by bit their figures resolved into something understandable.

I stood and baked in the sun, watching and waiting for them to come ashore, taking photo after photo. It was a remarkable, iconic sight.

From here we drove futher east until we could drive no more. The road simply ran out. From here on there was only sand, sea and a very humble little fishing village. It was a poor and simple place, of palm-leaf huts, boats and nets. The mornings catch was drying in the sun and life was slow.

There was a real feeling of being at the end of the world here and it had a certain dreamlike quality to it. This quiet little place seemed to have barely established a toehold into the local environment, and just like the old fairy tale it would only take a huff and a puff from a big bad wolf to blow it into the sea. This analogy is all the more pertinant as about fifty years ago this area had been devastated by a Cyclone. A ferocious hurricane that took out the railway line and all the original buildings. Looking at the village now it was plain they would not stand a chance if a similar storm hit. It gave me a shiver to think about it.

The people there were quite shy and not so keen to interact, so we soon headed back, stopping one last time at the base of Pamban Bridge for a final goodbye to this remarkable island.

I have to say that I really liked Ramashwaram. I liked it a lot. It reminded me of Pushkar up in Rajasthan twenty five years ago, when it was still a relaxed and innocent pilgrimage site. On our brief stay we had no one hassling us to do business or donate. There was just an air of acceptance and people generally ready to smile and laugh. I hope it long continues to be this way.

                ....... I just wish someone would clean it up a bit.

These are two of the actual culprits;  the alpha male and female of the troupe  They are happy to pose for photo shoots

Continue to Part Three