Karailkal, Trichy & Thanjavur - Sunday 5 - Tuesday 14 April 2009
We stopped for our first night "on the road' at Karailkal another part of Pondy previously given over to the French. There was much less French influence remaining here, though they are trying to do it up and revamp the port area - perhaps to catch some of the tourist $ which go to the other Pondy! On the way there we had enjoyed a brief stop at Poompuhar. This was an ancient fortress /temple (the whole area is absolutely crawling with them!) and was a bathing site for an ancient Tamil Princess.
The palace and bathing pools were reconstructed though she wouldn't want to bath in there now - not without a tetanus shot anyway! It was an interesting site though with a small museum with many statues, set on the seashore. It being Sunday there were loads of tourists and we were constantly mobbed by school kids! We had a quick look around Karailkal the next day - quite a few catholic churches, and old French buildings mixed in with the usual frenetic Indian activity!
We arrived in Trichy just as the tourist information place was shutting which was good timing as they managed to sort out a place for us to camp just around the corner. First sight of Trichy confirmed it was a very busy full on sort of City (850,000 population approx) so we were wondering where we'd camp. We ended up at the Tamil Nadu Hotel. The TN hotels are named after the state and are government run. Though there are exceptions they tend to be a bit basic but are good places to camp. We have now -as I type- grown to be Tamil Nadu Hotel veterans! Camping within the hotel grounds is a very good idea here. Whilst we feel very safe in India and the people are generally extremely welcoming and friendly, silly western concepts like "personal space" aren't a big deal here! We are always a bit of a crowd puller anyway but here we feel like rock stars!! One little boy asked if we were the circus once when we pulled up!! So it is useful to be within a hotel gate if you want any sort of privacy for eating/changing/showering etc!
Safely ensconced within the TN hotel gates we went for a wander around Trichy. It is a very busy vibrant City with a long history (way BC) and 2 amazing temples. Passing through various empire builders' hands (the Pallavas, the Pandyas & the Cholas to name a few) it was actually the Nayaks who built the Rock Fort and much of the town.
Next day we managed to park centrally at St Joseph's Seminary thanks to their very kind Priest. This Seminary which is apparently quite famous is directly next door to Lourdes church which we had a look at. Built in 1896 in a style copied from its French namesake & renovated 102 years later it was an incredibly impressive building. So, leaving the car in very safe hands we set off to see the Rock Fort temple.
I have to say - particularly as we are sleeping in the car - we both felt the effects of the move in land. With no sea breeze the heat became a bit oppressive - reaching 30 degrees by 9am and continuing to climb! The walk up to the rock temple was interesting going through the busy streets lined with vendors selling everything. It is amazing here often someone has their entire shop set up on their bike so they can just push it around!!
Here we saw what looked like a pale imitation of the Indian piercing festival we saw in Malaysia which is now illegal here.
Reaching the bottom of the rock we were met by the temple elephant who was blessing people whilst taking donations with his trunk! We had to leave our shoes there for the 437 stone step climb up to the top. The rock actually has 2 temples one -Sri Thayumanaswamy - dedicated to Shiva half way up and another in honour of Ganesh right at the top.
We probably hadn't timed it brilliantly as it was midday when we began our barefoot climb - as we sweltered up the stone cut steps which were red hot to our poor feet it was a bit like "Mad Dogs & Englishmen"or "Australians" ! Amazingly the workers were doing it at a run with 2 full crates of soft drinks on their heads - up and down passing us 3 or 4 times as we struggled up! Halfway up there was a hall with a free lunch being served. Though they were kind enough to offer we didn't want anything we just stopped to get our breath back!!
Anyway we made it and there was an awesome view of Trichy laid out before us.
On the way down we had to pass hordes of vendors selling relics /statues and we invested in a Ganesh - the elephant God. We are amassing a collection of such bits and pieces on our dashboard but Jonny our auto rickshaw friend had told us very seriously we should have a Ganesh for protection whilst driving in India. After a couple of weeks of driving here we tend to agree that divine intervention might be the way to go - so hopefully it works!!
Next we took in the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple. This immense complex dedicated to the God Vishnu dates from the 10th century. At 60 hectares it is the largest in India and contains seven concentric walled sections and 21 gopuram - the (usually) coloured towers depicting gods. The largest at 73 metres was constructed in 1987.
There were long pillar lined corridors lined with statues as far as the eye could see.
As ever it is a very full on experience - there are people milling around and frenetic activity everywhere. Worship of the gods seems to be very intrinsic to Hindus' lives - often shopkeepers break off to offer blessings to thank the gods when they make a sale and people frequently congregate around the street shrines to pray. Religion isn't a tranquil private activity here - but then nothing is!!!
Whilst in Trichy we enjoyed some good meals out including several Thalis. This is a very good value Southern Indian specialty where you are first given a banana leaf with rice and then help yourself to a variety of vegetarian side dishes and relishes - it is really tasty and at only 50 rp ($1.40 Aus )a bargain!
We ate one night at Vincent's Garden Restaurant. Vincent is a very friendly interesting host who cooks a delicious chicken curry and has a lovely restaurant set in a leafy garden setting. He is in the process of opening a hotel in an old vintage house (formerly a hotel) which we hope to some day return to stay in! He also runs a very good bakery where we treated ourselves to some vegetable pastries - really delicious! Definitely worth a visit if you're in Trichy.
So, as mentioned at the end of our last page - having been made to feel the shame of missing Thanjavur on the way in so keenly - we had no choice but to head there next!
Our first impression was pleasing -we arrived as the sun set casting a lovely golden glow over the beautiful World Heritage temple we had so wantonly disregarded before.
We managed once again to camp at the Tamil Nadu hotel and planned to go to visit the next day. This was where it went wrong. First Andrew got sick - and I quickly followed - with a 4 day "India Belly" experience! We can't be 100% sure of the culprit but after a post mortem we suspected some ice we had had in a drink.
Having seen the ice wallahs running around to deliver the ice often it is handled a quite a few times prior to reaching its destination so it is best to give it a very wide berth! Anyway for this time we actually left the camping area and moved into a room at the TN.
This one was once a Raja's guesthouse and had some nice touches -the rooms were enormous and it had a lovely old garden area. It had very much fallen on hard times though and the Raja might have been horrified to see the thread bare carpets and feel the general air of decay! It was priced accordingly though and for us it was a treat to be in a room and we rested up for a few days watching some of our DVDs whilst recovering.
When we finally felt better we went first to the art gallery to be met with the sign "Today Holiday"! The whole thing was starting to feel fated but thankfully the holiday seemed to be art gallery specific so we were able to explore the Brihadishwara temple and fort. This was spectacular and it was indeed very slack of us to miss it! Build in 1010 it is renowned as a classic example of Chola architecture -Thanjavur was actually the capital of the Chola kings. It is a gorgeous building with beautiful intricately carved statues set in lovely gardens. There was also a temple elephant once again dispensing blessing with his trunk!
We both thought that a lot of the carvings -particularly the dancers - set us in mind of Angkor Wat. In the inner sanctum there is a huge statue of the bull Nandi - the largest in India (not the one in the picture below!)
The dome which tops the temple weighs 8o tonnes and was hauled into place using bullock carts in a manner similar to the like the Egyptian pyramids.
It was really interesting made more so by our guide Mr. S Swamiraj. He can be contacted on 9345960180 and we'd really recommend him. For the price of 250 rp (approx $7Aus) he was a mine of information.
We next saw the Thanjavur Royal Palace. Build by both the Nayaks and the Marahtas - this was a lovely old building. It was in a state of disrepair but as you looked around the wide high ceilinged corridors and saw the murals around the dancing stage and the many statues you could imagine its former grandeur.
Whilst in Thanjavur we'd got to know a local flower shop proprietor. He was flat out every day, here for weddings everyone has a different garland to wear and all the rooms of the house and the matrimonial bed are decorated in intricate designs of real flowers so he was kept very busy. He made us both a garland which was really nice, though they soon perished in the heat!
We stayed in Thanjavur for another day to see the art gallery - which had some nice statues but of more interest was the library. This was fascinating. Established around 1700 it had ancient palm leaf manuscripts and some old maps of India and London as well as hundreds of old books and we could have browsed around it for hours.
Sadly though we had to get moving again and so we once more we braved the traffic (with Ganesh to protect us this time!) and headed on to our next destination - another temple town of Tamil Nadu - Madurai.