Tag Archives: India

Mahabalipuram.

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Mahabalipuram.

After a relatively short journey from Pondicherry we reached the last stop on our India adventure, Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is situated on the coast in the Bay of Bengal. It is quite a tourist haunt for many locals “especially at weekends” as well as international visitors. The main area of the town is called fisherman’s colony . Which consists of one main street leading down to the sea. Here you will find plenty of shops restaurants and gift shops. Like I said quite a tourist trap. There are some interesting sights to see here, like The Shore Temple. The Shore Temple is sited on a small peninsula of land overlooking the Bay of Bengal. The Pancha Rathas or Five Rathas. Are five temples shaped like chariots, each carved out of a single piece of stone, which date back to the seventh century. Krishna’s Butterball is a huge rock measuring some 6 metres tall and 5 metres wide and weighs some 250 tons. It precariously sits on a slope and looks like it can roll down at any minute. In 1908 the then governor of the town Arthur Havelock tried to move the stone because of health and safety reasons, with five elephants, but had no success, quite amazing really. Arjunas Penance, also know as The Decent of the Ganges, is a huge rock carving, measuring 29 metres long and 13 metres tall. Legend says that it is the decent of the Ganges from heaven to earth. Another must visit is Crocodile Bank Trust, which is a few kilometres from Mahabalipuram. Now when it comes to visiting places which involves animals we are very choosy indeed, as there are so many places purporting to be “Sanctuary’s, Conservationists, Rehabilitation centres,which are no more than a glorified tourist trap where they treat the animals badly just to make a lot of money. So we did our research and from what we had read we decided to visit. Crocodile Bank Trust was formed in 1976 by Rom and Zai Whitaker with the goal of protecting the three species of Indian crocodile, the Mugger, Saltwater crocodile and the rarest the Gharial. As by the 1970’s Indian crocodile population was on the brink of extinction. We both really did not realise how many species of crocodiles there were. Today Crocodile Bank has 17 species and has an excellent program of introducing them back into the wild. Entrance fee is just 50 rupees and is open Tuesday to Sunday 09:00 until 17:00

That’s the good side of Mahabalipuram the down side is the beach where all the fishing boats are situated at the end of the main street, is quite frankly filthy rubbish strewn everywhere, from discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles dog and cow excrement not a nice place to walk at all, but if it’s a nice part of the beach you are looking for just walk along the beach away from town past the large Raddison resort for about a mile or so where the beach is much better. There are no sun beds or beach shacks selling drinks food so you will have to take your own towel if you want to sunbath. All that said it is still a very nice place to visit.

On a sad note, during our walk along the beach we witnessed maybe six quiet large sea turtle carcasses. One looked quite recently deceased. We saw no evidence of there demise but I would not be surprised if their deaths were caused either by being caught in a discarded fishing net, or they had eaten some form of plastic. As quite often they think a floating plastic bag is a jelly fish which they eat. I spoke to the owner of our accommodation and he said that this seems to occur the same time each year. Whatever the reason it was a sad sight.

Accommodation

I feel I have to make a special mention about our accommodation The Blue Moon Guest House. Blue Moon is situated a couple of streets away from the main street in a nice quiet location. “I can recommend the room at the very top as it has views over the ocean”. The owner Saravanan is so nice, very helpful and speaks very good English.Blue Moon has basic good clean rooms and serves a good breakfast. So give them a look if you are in the area.

Restaurants

We only ate at two restaurants during our stay. One was Nautilus, the other was Vinodhara Guest House both served good food.

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Pondicherry

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Pondicherry

After leaving Kumbakonam our next stop on our trip was the town of Pondicherry. This small town was the largest French colony in India, and was so right up to 1954. The French influence is still very much in evidence, the architecture, French street names, bakery’s and French speaking Indians. Pondicherry has three different areas. There is the heritage quarter, white town and the new town which is basically like stepping back into India. Our stay in Pondicherry did not start too well. On arrival we had problems with accommodation, one was nothing like as described, another after booking online told us on arrival that they had no rooms available. When I showed them our booking reference, we was informed that it was a computer error,and I was plagued by ” what I can honestly say” was the worst cough I have ever had and was feeling quite ill. Not a good start. So it was good that we had a full seven days stay in the town so I had time to recover. Once we finally got the accommodation settled it was time to enjoy Pondicherry “in between coughing fits that is”. Over the first few days of our stay, we discovered that we had arrived during an Indian festival called Pongal. It is a four day harvest festival dedicated to the different Gods to promote a good crop growing season. What is really nice about it is that many of the locals create intricate designed drawings (mandalas) on the pavements, created with many different coloured powders. A truly amazing sight. In Pondicherry there isn’t many notable sights to see, but that is not to say it isn’t a very nice place to spend some time. It is far removed from main stream Indian, and was a little bit of calm and serenity after our very busy previous few weeks.

So our week consisted of taking walks along the promenade with its nice refreshing breeze, to visiting some of the many good restaurants in the area. Notable sights are the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, also the Pondicherry Museum, which is housed in a very beautiful ornate building. A bit further out of town if you want to venture further is Auroville “which we did not visit”, but it’s described as a township devoted to an experiment in human unity community. It was founded in 1968 by the spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa who is also known as “Mother”

Restaurants & Eateries

Le Chateau I can highly recommend the restaurant in the hotel where we stayed. Le Chateau, the food is excellent, staff are first class. Also the kitchen is housed behind a glass wall where you can see the chefs preparing and cooking the food.

Cafe del Flora A great place to just chill and relax. The cafe is owned and run bu a nice French guy, and serves baguettes, quiches and various other delights and good coffee.

Sicily’s Another nice place right on the seafront, serving great coffee, delicious cakes and really good pizza.

Not a lot else to say about Pondicherry except if you are touring southern India it’s a nice place to stay. Next stop Mahabalipuram.

Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

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Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

We travelled from Madurai to Trichy by coach with Parveen Travels, who I have to say we’re very good indeed, and would throughly recommend travelling with. They have various offices located throughout southern India and it’s worth checking them out. The journey took around two and a half hours, and was very pleasant indeed. Having read a lot about these three cities whilst doing our research, and reading about the unique temples in each of them, we felt we had to include them on our trip. I won’t go into detail about each city, as quite frankly, and not to sound too harsh they are just very busy Indian cities with little else other than the temples.

I will concentrate on the main sights, and give you a little insight into each.

Trichy.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

The temple occupies an area of 155 acres (63 ha) with 50 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions and many water tanks integrated into the complex. The temple town is a significant archeological and epigraphical site, providing a historic window into the early and mid medieval South Indian society and culture. Numerous inscriptions suggest that this Hindu temple served not only as a spiritual center, but also a major economic and charitable institution that operated education and hospital facilities, ran a free kitchen, and financed regional infrastructure projects from the gifts and donations it received “article extracted from Wikipedia”. Two other places of interest in Trichy, are the rock Fort with the seventeenth century Vinayaka (Ganesh) temple at the top. Entrance to the temple is in the very busy, China bazaar street. It’s quite an arduous climb to the top, up some very steep steps at times, which you will have to do bare footed, as it’s a Hindu temple. “Still don’t quite understand this rule, or who even made the rule up”. Upon reaching the top there are far reaching views across the city. The other interesting structure is Our Lady of Lourdes church , which is modelled on the basilica of Lourdes. The church is at the start of bazaar street so visit this first then walk along the China bazaar to get to the Rock Fort. These you could quite easily visit in one day. We originally had four nights booked in Trichy but we cut this down to three, as apart from the above there is not much else to do in the city.

Thanjavur

Is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Brihadishwara Temple and is by far my favourite temple on this trip. The Gopura’s (temple towers) are not brightly coloured like most of the other temples we have visited, but are left in original sandstone. Which in my opinion is more pleasing to the eye. Brihadishwara Temple is one of the largest in South India and is dedicated to the god Shiva. Also in town is the Thanjavur Palace. The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, known locally as Aranmanai, is the official residence of the Bhonsle family which ruled over the Tanjore region from 1674 to 1855. Most of it is now derelict but there some interesting artefacts inside and some nicely preserved sections. Note the palace is closed between 1pm and 2pm and entrance costs 200 INR which includes entrance to the library, art gallery and the museum.

Kumbakonam

Around one and a half hours drive from Thanjāvūr is Kumbakonam, the last stop on our temple trail. Kumbakonam is a very busy, bustling place,we felt more so than the other cities which we had visited, it was manic. It also didn’t help by the fact that our hotel was situated by a very large bus station, with their horns bellowing from early morning and until late at night. We had only booked two nights, so we only had one full day to explore. Their are quite a few temples to visit in Kumbakonam but we only managed one, probably as at this stage in our trip we were quite frankly all templed out. We decided on visiting the Airavatesvara Temple. It’s situated a little out of town, it’s nice and quite, and set in some well manicured grounds. Just perfect. The style of the temple is very much like the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjāvūr, but on a much smaller scale. So if you are doing the same sort of itinerary as us, and like us “templed out” then it is one to visit.

Indian Religion

I feel I want to just add my take on the Hindu way of worship. Being somebody that has no faith, I still find all religions fascinating. Firstly I am a great lover of the amazing architecture of the places of worship, whichever religion this maybe. I am also fascinated by the dedication of the followers. We have seen hundreds possibly thousands of people queuing on a daily basis to give there offerings. We have witnessed train and bus loads of pilgrims travelling from all parts of India to worship at there chosen gods temple. We spoke to a group on a train that had been travelling non stop for some thirty hours to reach a a temple on there pilgrimage. I find this devotion and dedication quite mind blowing. The one thing that I will never understand though is that outside every temple we visited there are many market stalls selling flowers, coconuts, parcels of food, which are then taken into the temple and given to the gods as an offering. In addition to this millions of rupees are donated every day. My question is where does all this food and money go. Certainly not to the people who need it, as the amount of homeless people I have witnessed on the streets and living in squaller and begging for food is incredible. One fact that I looked up was that the current estimates of homeless in India run at 78 million, 11 million of which are children. These figures shocked me. That is 13 million more than the whole population of the UK. Food for thought I think.

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.

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