Tiruchendur & Kanniyakumari Monday 20 - Saturday 25 April 2009
Rameswaram, being an Island is connected to the mainland by the Indira Ghandi Bridge - a real feat of engineering opened by Rajiv Ghandi in 1988. It is certainly a pretty impressive sight and has a railway line running parallel all the way. It is a real draw -with pull off viewing points - complete with vendors selling pineapples (delicious!) and fake Ray Bans!
The tourist information man had airily told us "good road all the way" to our inquiry about the next stage of our journey and things started out well, with an impressive tar covered road which went along fine until suddenly we hit a "Road Closed" sign - behind which the good road seemed to continue but the villagers had taken it over and were drying their chilly crop on it! From there on our Raw4x4 shocks got a good work out ….it was being upgraded - so in the meantime we and a lot of buses and trucks all had to bump along a very dusty pot hole ridden widened goat track - peppered with suicidal cows-! The road workers - who comprised the local villagers mainly women - were hard at it as we drove past carrying big loads of rubble on their heads- can't have been easy in the 40 degree heat!
We passed by lots of glimpses of ongoing village life - people washing in rivers alongside wallowing buffaloes, carrying water on their heads and everywhere the daily games of cricket going on! They were very friendly and the kids all ran at us waving and followed the car as far as possible. The main crop -particularly once we hit the coast -seemed to be coconut. They use every bit of it and we saw truck loads of husks going off to be made into rope.
A feature we really noticed in this area was the huge number of Christian churches. Whist these are intermingled with Hindu temples they seem to be in the majority here. Many of these date from the Portuguese time or are copies of these and are always Roman Catholic and so are often quite beautiful ornate buildings in the European style. The Christians live very closely to the Hindus and there seems to be no problems or tensions which is good. One of our guides a Hindu was married to a Catholic lady and I asked if this caused any problems and he said "On Monday to Saturday I worship my gods and on Sunday I go to church and pray to your baby Jesus." I guess Hinduism has so many gods incorporating one more isn't an issue!!
As we really don't like driving in the dark here (many vehicles don't use lights which adds even more "excitement" to the whole thing! ) an hour from sundown we stated looking around and we stopped at the coastal town of Tiruchendur- once again we played our Tamil Nadu card and camped there in the centre of town. We have taken to going in armed with our past "Tamil Nadu Hotel" receipts. The Indians are very bureaucratic and like to sign you in and out. They are often initially unsure about letting us camp as we are a bit outside the rule book- but once they see a precedent has been set they generally are very welcoming. This is what happened here.
Tiruchendur is -once more- a big site of Hindu pilgrimage - full of pilgrims & holy men. It is supposed to be the location of a god Karthikeya's final battle with the demons which he successfully defeated here. He then built a temple here to honour his father Lord Siva. The temple was quite small very dark a bit cave like. You could go and be blessed in a tiny little room - no cameras. The structure of the pillared halls was similar but smaller to others we'd seen. I think they get less westerners here and we were a bit of a tourist attraction with everyone wanting to have their picture taken with us! The town has a nice setting on the sea shore and the Tamil Nadu Hotel's restaurant was very good. Sometimes they can be a bit patchy but this one was excellent and we enjoyed Tandoori Chicken and Vegetable Kumar.
It was a bit of a long night - the sea breeze didn't reach to where we were camping so it got pretty hot at times. We were definitely safe though - the resident security guard marched up and down and every now and again blew his whistle hard right outside where we were trying to sleep -which didn't make for a great night's sleep!
Next morning we drove on - continuing down what we had dubbed the 'coast of churches" to our next destination Kanniyakumari formerly known as Cape Comorin. On the way we passed loads of wind turbines - literally stretching as far as the eye could see. We later found out this part of India having 800 turbines is second only to California in production of this sort of power.
This is India's "Land's end" the Southernmost tip where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Again it is an area of huge spiritual significance to Hindus and when we arrived on Tuesday 21/04/2009 - the streets were thronging with pilgrims. Supposedly April is the best time to see the sunset and moonrise simultaneously over the ocean - though we never managed this! We have to say none (well maybe none but a few!) of the sunsets we've seen on our travels so far have been as good as the ones we saw every night in Darwin.
Here our Tamil Nadu references were no dice! The clerk there told us a bit snottily that "we don't do that" and we were similarly turned away from a couple of other places. We went for a bit of a drive out and high on a hill overlooking the ocean we found our campsite. We were just going to bed when someone rocked up with a torch - it was the security guard from what we had thought was a deserted compound next door and he felt we would be safer if we moved within the compound walls so we did. We were awoken at 5am with very loud but quite lovely singing. This was a feature of every morning whilst we camped here and we soon found out it was Mass being celebrated over the loud speakers at the open air church at the bottom of the hill. They only have a small church - and such is the demand they have to worship outdoors as the church is over filled. The Mass is a special one every morning to bless the fishermen before they go out to sea. Whilst a bit of an early wakeup call the singing (in Tamil) was lovely and quite nice to listen to.
When we got up and met Francis the security man we found out we'd camp within a clothing factory! This area was badly affected by the 2004 Tsunami with over 100 deaths and massive loss of houses. This initiative was set up with funds donated from a charity in Spain -headed by an English lady- to help by providing training and a way to earn money for the local women. It was still in the early stages so hopefully will flourish, it had a childcare centre and several big sewing rooms. The ladies will make garments to sell throughout India. They also have a coconut oil production section.
Francis was very welcoming but spoke little English neither did all the ladies who arrived to work in the factory, so they brought in the local priest who spoke very well to act as interpreter!
UPDATE MARCH 2010
AN INDIAN READER HAS ASKED US TO POINT OUT THAT THERE IS NO PROBLEM WITH TALIBAN TRAINING CAMPS IN INDIA - ONLY SOME ISSUES WITH MAOISTS/NAXALITES IN SOME AREAS. WE PUT THE QUOTED COMMENT IN A "TONGUE IN CHEEK" FASHION AS WE DIDN'T TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. THERE ARE NO TALIBAN TRAINING CAMPS HERE - WE'RE SORRY IF THIS COMMENT CAUSED ANY OFFENCE.
We mentioned that we'd not been wanted in the TN and he said there was a problem nearby over the border in Kerala with Taliban training camps so they had to be very careful!!!
We enjoyed a full couple of days taking in the sights here. There are several very busy little fishing villages in the area - and a wealth of Catholic churches. They are obviously deeply religious people and it is customary to bless your boat by putting a cross or picture of Jesus on it. We even met a couple of Jesus's - as in South America it is a popular boy's name here. It was quite nice just to wander around the villages - seeing the fishermen mending their nets or enjoying a game of cards. They were very friendly and welcoming.
Next day we went on a boat trip out to the 2 structures which dominate the horizon from here- the Thriruvalluvar Statue and Vivekananda's rock memorial. We were lucky we went that day as the next one all the boats were cancelled in a show of protest concerning the situation over the water with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This protest/strike ran throughout the state of Tamil Nadu closing all businesses from 6am to 6pm. Anyway after being packed on the boat and given life jackets we made it across though we both went flying on the -not so smooth- landing!!
Thriruvaluvar was a Tamil poet, and this immense statue was the work of over 5000 sculptors. Completed in 2000 it is 133 feet high - to reflect his most famous epic - Thirukkural which has that many verses. It was quite a steep climb up with good views from the top though it was very blowy.
We then got back on the boat to shuttle across to Vivekananda's memorial. This marks the spot where the famous wandering monk (see our Chennai page where we visited an exhibition about his life) meditated for 3 days in 1897 before beginning his worldwide pilgrimage. There is a memorial built in 1970 which reflects various architectural styles and you can visit the place where the Swami sat and meditated. It is a tranquil place with a great view back up the coast.
Once back on dry land we went for a look around another great man's memorial - that dedicated to Ghandi. This unusual building reflects Islamic Hindu & Christian themes to reflect Gandhi's wish to unite all creeds. His ashes were originally stored here before being sent around the world and the exact spot is illuminated by the sun ray's on the 2nd October which was his birthday. We had a wonderful guide who bossed us all around and blew his whistle loudly if anyone wasn't paying enough attention!!
We then went on to see the famous Kumari Amman temple- but on the way we had our fortunes told!! The dentally challenged fortune teller wasn't all that easy to understand but it's good to know we'll both enjoy a long life - 85 for me but Andrew gets to make it to 99!! We got swept over by a bush and then had to throw a stone into the point where the 3 different waters meet- which supposedly gets rid of our past sins! Thus cleansed we went onto the temple.
As per usual we both had to take our shoes off but this time Andrew also had to remove his shirt. The whole place was packed with flabby bare cheated pilgrims! This temple is dedicated to Devi Kanya the goddess who having chosen Shiva as her husband decided to remain a virgin forever when for various reasons she couldn't have him. The Virgin Goddess is the focus of this temple.
It was all a bit bewildering inside the temple- lots of corridors and shrines & we went from place to place - being asked for donations at several different points! It was very interesting, and there were some beautiful stone carvings however absolutely no cameras allowed inside. There is a big festival the Car festival in a couple of months' time where the deity is paraded around town. We saw the carts used to do this in many villages on our travels so there must be a lot of similar festival throughout the country.
After paying homage to the Goddess you are supposed to bath in the sacred sea waters and we saw plenty of people doing just.
We enjoyed our stay here and really liked our camp spot with a view. We got to know the security guard Francis well and he was a great guy- we just had one unfortunate experience here. We had been told there were some bad kids here and we'd had a few hanging around. We let them stay but when they started being a nuisance - asking for money etc- we asked if they could leave us in peace. Next morning at 6am we were fast asleep when something knocked my leg. We awoke very quickly to find the kids patting around at the edge of our bed looking for stuff to steal! Andrew gave chase - stark naked! - and nearly caught them ….good job none of the Christian sewing ladies were there yet! It was a bit unpleasant but was more naughty kids than anything. When we asked recently about safety for camping one of the guides said "far safer here than in your country" and on the whole he's probably right, there are areas in both the UK & Oz you certainly wouldn't feel safe sleeping. They didn't get anything anyway - and who knows maybe the memory of Andrew in the nude pursuing them might be what's needed to put them back on the path of righteousness!!!
So, on Saturday 25 April we finally left Kanniyakumari and drove on round the Cape to head up the west coast. On the way we took a short trip out to Suchindram - about 13 km out of town. We saw the cart used to parade the deity around town at festival times (see above) and the bathing area - but never made it into the temple.
On the way we had a beautiful backdrop of the Western Ghats a huge mountain range which stretches from North of Mumbai over Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka & Kerala and just peters out here, so we saw the tail end. Finally - with a fairly low key sign to mark the fact - we crossed the border into the state of Kerala.