Madurai, Meenakshi Amman Temple

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Madurai, Meenakshi Amman Temple

After our very short flight from Bangalore, we arrived in Madurai. We decided on visiting Madurai. Firstly as it seemed a natural route on travelling north to Pondicherry, also after watching a travel program on British tv hosted by Joanne Lumley, who was tracing her Indian roots, and visited the Meenakshi Amman Temple. So it wetted our appetite to see for ourselves.

Madurai is the third largest city in Tamil Nadu and is just like any other busy Indian city, but the one thing that makes the town worthy of a visit is the the magnificent Meenakshi Amman Temple. Meenaksi Temple receives around 6000 devotees a day, and during the annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, the temple can attract over a million pilgrims and visitors from all over India. The temple has four very large Gopuram’s or towers. North, South, East and West, and are around 50 metres tall, 170 feet, and covers an area of some 45 acres. It dominates the Madurai skyline. We could see it quite clearly, and our hotel was some three to four kilometres away. We had four nights in Madurai, we just took things at a leisurely pace. You don’t have to stay this long if time is tight, but I would recommend two full days.

Visiting the Temple

The Temple is open from 05:00 to 12:30, then reopens again at 15:30 to 22:00. Entry is free, (except for the museum which is 50 INR ) but worth the entrance fee. You are free to explore everywhere, except inner prayer section, where non Hindu’s are not allowed. I would recommend visiting in the morning thus avoiding the afternoon heat.

Must see sights.

Putu Mandapam Market. Fruit & vegetable and the banana markets

The Putu Mandapam Market is housed in the confines of the temple,”underneath it in fact”. It’s mainly a wholesale market. Consisting of four long aisles, each aisle having it’s own specialty. One for cook ware, one for fabrics, one for beads costume jewellery ribbons and braid, and finally one for ornate pots, water containers and various elaborate Hindu effigies. Wandering through the market I couldn’t help admiring how the Indian people are so industrious. Each little stall was a small and very productive cottage industry. The fruit and vegetable market and the banana market are just a maze of colour, so many different types that I have no clue as to what they are. It’s a photographers dream.

Gandhi Museum

The building that houses the Gandhi Memorial Museum, is the historic Tamukkam Palace belonging to Rani Mangammal of Nayak Dynasty built about 1670 A.D. It was in 1955 the palace with about 13 acres of land was gifted by the Tamil Nadu State Government to the All India Gandhi Smarak Nidhi for the purpose of housing Gandhi Memorial Museum. Entrance to the museum is free, and from an Englishman’s point of view it’s a must visit. As you walk around there are panels detailing Gandhi’s life from the early days with lots of photos and quotes from various politicians. Taking you through Gandhi’s epic struggle to gain Indian its independence. Now being an Englishman I am not one who subscribes to the whole British Empire, Britannia Rules the waves, etc etc, and after reading his struggle and what the British did to India and how they left it, I did come away feeling rather ashamed. I know some will say that the British did a lot of good, and I’m sure we did in some respects. There are also probably many Indians, I’m sure, who were glad of the British occupation, but I’m also sure there were plenty that weren’t. Whatever you point of view is it’s always “in my view” good to look at it from another countries perspective, and the Gandhi Museum certainly does that.

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Bangalore, New Years Eve.

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Where do I begin? After our brilliant time in Hampi it was time to move on to Bangalore. It was just for a couple of nights to break up the trip to Madurai. It started off badly as our train which was due to leave 21:10, but as always on Indian rail, it was delayed by an hour. The journey to Bangalore takes nine hours, and I did not get a wink of sleep. It wasn’t because the carriage was noisy, but the fact that the beds in the sleeper carriages on Indian rail are like sleeping an a bed of bricks. Also the fact I was not feeling very well at all. Hot one minute, cold the next and with frequent visits to the toilet, it was a total nightmare. When we arrived I was feeling, let’s just say well under the weather. So I could not wait to get to the hotel and have a shower and a nice rest. This wasn’t to be. On arrival at the Homestay we had booked we were very disappointed, it was nothing like the images on the website, not very nice at all, and when we were shown our room, the bed looked no different than the one on the train. We tried to contact the owners to explain our predicament, but with no success. So we just told the two guys who were looking after the place (who could not understand a word of English) that we were leaving and called a taxi, and found another hotel.

Our next hotel thankfully was much nicer, but unfortunately for me, I had to spend the whole day in bed, and being New Years Eve it was some what disappointing. The next day I felt a little better and was able to get out and around, but I still wasn’t hundred percent. We were due to be on another overnight train journey the next day. I really couldn’t endure this the way I felt. So we cancelled our train and booked a flight with Indigo Airlines for £22 each, this being a one hour journey instead of nine hours on a rattly uncomfortable train, it sounded like heaven.

What to see in Bangalore

There really isn’t a great deal of sights in the city except the Palace, which is worth a visit, and Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. This you could quite easily miss. The pictures on the website and Google images make it out to be a little piece of calm and serenity in the heart of the big city. Pretty flowers, nicely mowed lawns and a large picturesque lake. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s an overcrowded, litter strewn piece of waste land in my opinion. Very disappointing. Our day wasn’t all bad, as we met a very interesting French guy in a coffee shop , who lives in Bangalore and was studying Sanskrit. We had a great chat about Indian politics and the Indian culture in general. I have to mention our Hotel the Royal Senate Racecourse, apart from being a very nice hotel, it as a very good restaurant on the ground floor call the “London Curry House” I managed a meal here on our last day and it was amazing. A great selection of dishes and some Indian fusion food “the chef must have been an Indian Heston Blumenthal. Serving some brilliant creations. Like the Pani Puri, which is a selection of puri balls with a hole in the top, served with a selection of fillings. After you fill your small ball, you then pour a spicy sauce and a sweet sauce from the little pots below the puri balls and then pop it in you mouth. The taste is amazing.

As I haven’t much to write about Bangalore, I thought I would share some things I have picked up along the way.

Getting Around

Public transport There are plenty of buses in India, which are extremely cheap, but trying to decipher which one is going where is quite frankly impossible. Unless you are a local. Getting on one also looks an art form. “We didn’t use them we just watched in amazement from a distance”. For longer distances, there is a good selection of quite modern “I use the term loosely” buses for longer distances. A good App for this is called RedBus which looks very useful “or so we thought”, where you can pick your type of bus, A/C, non A/C, choose your seat and choose the time you want to travel. You need a Indian mobile number to register (which I will come on to). Where it all falls down is you have to pay for your tickets with an Indian Bank Card as they will not accept foreign ones. Great, but I suppose it’s useful for bus timings and bus types?

Taxis & Auto Rickshaw (Tuk-Tuk’s)

Tuk-Tuk’s are great for short distances, and to get to the main tourist attractions. Don’t rely on them to know anything other than that though. Like the whereabouts of hotels or restaurants. As we have learnt on more than one occasion. You either end up a few hundred metres down the road outside a coffee shop which had been closed for three months. “We wanted to go to a hotel for dinner”. “See last post” Or the complete opposite direction of where you want to be. The alternative is taxis, but the only way to get these is to use Mobile Apps, like Über, Meru Cabs or Olacabs. I have all three on my phone as some work in some states but not in others. These will give you the exact fare and the drivers use google maps to navigate, so you have a pretty good chance to get where you want to be.

Indian railways

Train travel in India is very cheap, and getting tickets on the day if you are going relatively short distances is easy. If travelling long distances, it advisable to book in advance, especially for overnight trains. You can do this at the station or via a ticket agent. Be warned though, travelling on the trains can be a very crowded and stressful experience at times, but on the whole they are ok, and you do meet some very interesting and friendly people.

Mobile phone SIM cards.

You can pick up a SIM card at the airport when you arrive “providing your phone is unlocked from you network”, but this is not always the cheapest option as they try to sell you an expensive package. It’s better to wait and get one in town. Remember when getting a SIM card you will need your passport and a passport size photograph “I always carry a few on our trips” I got a SIM card from the mobile carrier Ideal. For 600 INR around £7.00. This gave me unlimited calls within india unlimited texts and 1gb of data daily for two months. A bargain don’t you think. Wish I could get a package as cheap as that in the UK. One thing worth mentioning is if you are travelling to different states within India sometimes the phone settings need to be changed, as you may loose your data ability “well my iPhone did”. If this happens just pop into a friendly mobile shop, there’s plenty of them, and they will sort you out without any fuss or cost “providing they can speak English that is”.

Oh well that’s all for now. Next stop Madurai and the Meenakshi Amman Temple

Ancient city of Hampi

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Ancient city of Hampi

After our overnight train travelling north from Mysore, we arrived in Hospet, for the next leg of our journey, to visit the ancient city of Hampi. Surprisingly train journey was quite good, and surprisingly I had a good nights sleep. Which I wasn’t expecting The distance from Mysore to Hampi is around 265 miles, and takes around 12 hrs.

Hampi

Hampi is situated in east central Karnataka and became the centre of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, and its capital in the 14th century, and is also a Unesco World Heritage site. The now ruined city covers an area of some 16 square miles, and is an amazing sight to see. The amazing thing about the area where Hampi is situated is that from every view point, and far as the eye can see, the area is littered by huge boulders. Quite how this happened it remains a mystery. It’s nothing like I have ever witnessed before, it’s like a surreal lunar landscape from a sci-fi film. Many of the structures, temples and ancient bazaars are still in quite remarkable condition considering their age. These include the Elephant stables, the Virupaksha Temple in the Hampi bazaar, Lotus Mahal and the Queens bath and the Stone Cart to name but a few.

Top Tips

Personally I would recommend staying in Hospet when visiting, as the area around the Hampi bazaar with its limited accommodation is a little run down. In my opinion it’s probably aimed at hardened backpackers. A better reason to stay in Hospet is, at the time of writing the government is having a big crackdown in the Hampi bazaar area, and removed a lot of the shops and accommodation. In the local news, the reason was “they stated” that they wanted to clean up the area.

Getting to Hampi from Hospet

There are various ways to get Hampi from Hospet. You can take a tour by car from your hotel, the cost at our hotel was 1700 INR around £20 for the day. Or you can take a Tuk Tuk, there are plenty offering tours at a 1000 INR around £12. I would not recommend either of these as it would be somewhat rushed to see the sights in one day. We had two full days, to take the time to soak in the atmosphere of this amazing place, even more if you wanted to trek even further. Our method of transport was the local bus. They run every 10 minutes from the bus station, and you are not jammed in like most Indian buses, in fact it’s quite a pleasant journey. The cost of a single journey is 16 INR £0.20. The buses go all the way to Hampi Bazaar, or you can get off at the Queens Bath area which are the two main areas to visit (click on Hampi link to view map)

On our first day we walked around the Hampi Bazaar and the Virupaksha Temple, then if you walk away, with the temple at your back, along the long straight road with ancient bazaar either side, you will then reach the monolithic bull (Nadi). From here you walk up the hill in front off you and down the other side. You will then reach Achyuta Raya’s Temple. From here just follow your map, and eventually you will get to Vittala Temple, where the Stone Chariot is. It’s a full days walking, but you will see far more than if you are on a tour, as a lot of areas are not accessible by vehicles, which is a good thing in my opinion.

Our second day was exploring the Queens Bath, Hazara Rama Temple the Stepped Well, and the magnificent Elephant Stables. This site is around 6km from the Hampi Bazaar, and is not such a full on day. As explained earlier, the bus stops here on the way to Hampi Bazaar

Top Tips

This might sound obvious, but take plenty of water as there is not many vendors around, and it gets extremely hot in the height of the day. There are only two areas that have entrance fees, the Vittala Temple and the Elephant Stables. Our guide book stated that the fee for foreigners “Indians pay 50 INR £0.60” was 250 INR, around £3.00 for each attraction. On arrival we were surprised, this had gone up to 500 INR £5.80. On closer inspection of our ticket though, the price is for both attractions, but you have to visit them in the same day. We didn’t incidentally but we still managed to use our ticket

Accommodation

We stayed in the Royal Orchid, which sounds very grand but believe me it was not. But one Hotel I would highly recommend was the Hampi International Hotel. We ate there every night, the food was amazing, prices much lower than our hotel. Also the rooms looked much better. Only wish we had found this one when we were researching our trip.

Christmas in Mysore, India,

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Christmas in Mysore, India,

After our five and a half journey on a bus, to cover just 161km (100 miles) we reached Mysore (Mysuru). It was a massive attack on the senses after being in the sedate atmosphere of Ooty. The bus station was absolutely heaving, buses honking their horns, crowds of people going about there business, auto rickshaw drivers frantically asking “where do you want to go sir”. I felt like my head would explode. Now it’s not like I am not used to this, as this is my fourth visit to India, and have experienced other hectic cities, like Mumbai (Bombay), Deli, Bangalore, but after our nice and sedate time in Ooty it was like being thrown into a cauldron. So you can imagine we were looking forward to getting to our hotel to get away from it all after our long journey. As my stress levels were let’s say we’re slightly raised. Trouble was they increased even more when we arrived at our hotel. The Spree Roopa Elite. We walked to the reception desk to check in, and was told that our booking had been cancelled. When I asked why, they told me that they had tried to contact me to confirm our booking but as I didn’t respond (I had had no contact from them incidentally), so they took it upon themselves to cancel. Not thinking to contact Booking.com who we had booked through, who could have contacted us, or send an email. Also their were an Indian couple who were having the same problem. An absolutely disgusting way to treat people. So I told the manager that we were not moving until we got the room we had booked, and if we have to, we would sleep in the reception. So after around two hours of waiting and calls to Booking.com we finally checked in.

Christmas Eve

Has a really good day, we visited St Philomena Cathedral by day and by night (it is amazingly lit at night, it’s even better at Christmas time.) Then onto Mysore Palace which is an amazing spectacle by day, but when it’s lit up at night it’s breathtaking, a must visit if you are in town. “Top Tip the illuminations are only lit on Sundays and Public Holiday so bear that in mind when planning your visit”. The atmosphere was electric and truly emotional. So many people from so many religions celebrating Christmas Eve. There was live India music and dancing show on a stage in front of the palace, and a spectacular illuminated flower show. Once again like always when we visit India we were the centre of attention being westerners. We had so many people wanting our photographs with there families, and selfies with themselves it was mad, but everyone was so friendly. It was brilliant. What a Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day

It was an up and down day really. First off we wanted to go and have a look at a restaurant called Tiger Trails, situated in the Royal Orchid Metropole Hotel, which was recommend in the lonely planet guide book to book a table for our Christmas curry dinner. So we approached an auto rickshaw driver, told him where we wanted to go, he acknowledged, gave us a price, then proceeded to drive around the corner about 300 yds and drop us off at a coffee shop which had been closed for three months. So we found another auto rickshaw driver who knew where he was going. Next stop was the railway museum, which looked good on Google images. Lots of old steam trains from the past, ornate carriages from the days of the Raj. On arrival we could see the steam trains all dotted around, but painted in the most gaudy colours imaginable, kids running around screaming and climbing over the trains, it was like a bizarre theme park, so we didn’t bother. Luckily our auto rickshaw guy was still there so we proceeded to McDonald’s for some western comfort.

The Tiger Trail Restaurantis housed in the Hotel Metropole, which listed building which was built for guests of the Maharajah at the time. A really lovely ornate building, great ambiance and a very lovely dining courtyard . I have to admit it was rather strange though, eating curry for Christmas dinner,

Must see sights in Mysore

Mysore Palace is a must when visiting Mysore a truly amazing place, and according to Wikipedia it’s one of the most visited sights in India after the Taj Mahal, attraction some six million visitors a year. Remember though it’s only illuminated on a Sundays and public holidays

Chamundi Hill Is another must visit “although we didn’t on this trip as we have been before”. Sri Chamudeshwari Temple is situated atop of a hill overlooking Mysore. You can reach the top by taxi or by auto rickshaw. Or you can make the arduous climb to the top by way of some 1000 steps, which if you are fit enough I would recommend.

St Philomena Cathedral a really magnificent structure, and one of the largest churches in India. It was especially nice on this visit, as it was all lit and decorated for the Christmas festivities.

Brindavan Gardens Located around 25km from Mysore. Although we did not manage to get here due to time constraints, we were told it’s worth the visit. Especially the evening light show

Coimbatore,Ooty and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

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Well, after our time in Kumarakom it was time to head further north to Ooty, which is also known as Udagamandalam. It is high up in India’s Western Ghats. It’s location is around 86km north of Coimbatore and 121km from Mysore, which is our next destination. To get to Ooty involved taking a six hour train journey “which should have been five, that’s Indian rail” from Kottayam to Coimbatore. We were in AC2 class, which is slightly better than Sleeper Class, insomuch as its air conditioned, “so much so it was like travelling inside a fridge”. Our train arrived in Coimbatore at 7:30pm. We had booked to stay for one night at the Kiscol Grands hotel, “a rather grand place but only £30 per night” we stayed in Coimbatore as we could not find any suitable accommodation at Mettupalayam where the Mountain Railway leaves from. The mountain train has only one service a day and that leaves at 07:10am. Our taxi picked us up at 05:30am, the journey to the Mettupalayam took around 1 hour. When we arrived the place was bustling with people, as the journey on the blue train which it’s known as, is a very popular tourist attraction. For the train aficionados the Ooty train is a cog railway and is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3’3⁄8 in) gauge. This informations drawn from Wikipedia, just in case my friends who read this think I’ve turned into a train nerd. The railway was built in 1908 and ascends 2203 metres. Journey time takes around 5hrs to travel the 46km. There are various stopping points where you can get off and stretch your legs, get a drink and some food “you need it as the carriages are a little snug”. As you climb high into the western ghats the views are stunning. Peaks, low valleys, tea plantations, tiny villages trickling streams and waterfalls to enthral you along the way.

The town of Ooty itself is really lovely place to visit for a few days, you would not even think you were in India “except for the manic driving and honking of horns”. With its back drop of the ghats all around you, it’s like your in an amphitheater. It’s lush landscape and very tall trees, “I likened it to perhaps somewhere like North America” and it’s own micro climate it’s the perfect place to chill. No wonder the British came here to escape the heat of cities and towns down from the mountains. The architecture, the buildings and the lovely colonial bungalows and heritage homes are really beautiful. One thing to remember is that Ooty is high in the Western Ghats and the temperature is a lot lower then lower down. For example when we were in Varkala it was around 30 degrees now it’s currently 13 degrees dropping to 8 to 9 degrees overnight so bring warm clothing.

Top Tips

Accommodation I can recommend staying at the Wyoming Heritage Home stay a really beautiful home high up on the side of a hill overlooking the town. It’s in an ideal location, away from the hustle and bustle of the town below.

Sights

  • Boat house lake, personally we could have left this one out, it’s a large man made boating lake with lots of tacky souvenir shops and amusements, but it seems a hit with the locals.
  • Thread Garden This one is definitely worth a visit. It’s the tireless work of a guy named Antony Joseph and 50 women who have constructed a floral garden of many plant species and flowers, all made just out of thread and all by hand. It took the team 12 years to complete, amazing. It’s located right opposite the Boat House Lake.
  • Botanical Gardens Now this a must visit, a beautiful oasis on the edge of town. It was built in 1848 by Scottish gardener William Graham McIvor who worked at Kew Gardens in England. Top Tip make sure you walk right up the the very top section where the very tall and large eucalyptus trees are, an amazing sight. Also another attraction that we did not visit is the Rose Garden, the reason being that the roses are not in bloom. Best time to see this we have been told is May and June when everything is in bloom.
  • Doddabetta Peak This is the highest point in Tamil Nadu at 8640 feet above sea level, affording amazing views over the Western Ghats and Ooty, although the day we visited the view was somewhat muted due to low cloud, which was a shame. If your stay in Ooty allows visit on a week day as its a very popular tourist spot. “It was really busy on a weekday so it is quite possibly manic at the weekends.
  • The Tea Factory After visiting Doddabetta peak and on the way down, it’s worth stopping and having a look at the tea factory. The production line is quite small so it’s easy to see the whole process from leaves to the end product easily. An interesting visit.