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South India Part One

27th Mar 2010

Sun 14th March - Mamallapuram

After a unimpressive breakfast compounded by a poor nights sleep caused by a lumpy bed with disappointing pillows we head out to the temple rock carving area of Mamallapuram. Arjuna's Penance is a staggering piece of stone carving, a large bas-relief featuring elephants and monkeys. We pass groups of Indian tourists all dressed up in their sunday best and head to Krishna's Butter Ball, which is basically just a large boulder but seems to defy gravity. Even at 9.30AM the sun is burning down and eggs could be cooked on the rocks. There are a number of other impressive carved temples including the Krishna Mandapa before we head down to a street lined with sculptors chipping away and using powertools to create their latest masterpieces.

As we head to the beach we decide to give the Shore Temple a miss. It might be the oldest temple in South India but it does not seem worth the 250R asking price (Indians pay 20R). We skirt the grounds via a dirty beach, indian daytrippers line the beach with a tired selection of carousels and a few boys touting rides on ponies. To get round the temple we clamber over some rocks strewn with rubbish and human excrement. The view here proves we've saved our money, the temple is half clad in scaffolding (a theme from our trip) and is swarming with tourists and Indian school groups.

We spend the rest of the day chilling on our guesthouse rooftop before heading out for a tasty prawn curry with a landscape gardner called Josh from the Channel Islands.

Mon 15th March - Mamallapuram

We head to the Government College of Sculpture which is a virtual ghost town. It turns out all the students are on a study break in Rajasthan, Agra and various sites in the south. We are shown round the bronze casting studio, painting and stone carving studios and chat to the varioous tutors. Work here is very traditional and focusses entirely on Indian Art History and religious iconography. On our way back into town we pass the wine shop which has a very limited supply of bad whiskey, rum and brandy (no wine in sight). Already at 11.30, there are drunk Indian men staggering around being helped by their equally inebriated friends!

Another afternoon is spent doing very little before dinner at Moonrakers, named after english smugglers from Wiltshire not the Bond film.

Tues 16th March - Pondicherry

The day starts badly, Odie knocks over her Banana lassi in a small french cafe. The waiter comes over and makes a snide comment about us being children before taking 25 minutes to bring my food, he forgets Odies' toast but eventually brings it cold when I ask him. We leave without giving a tip and Odie gives her toast to an overjoyed street beggar.

We jump on the 'deluxe' bus which despite its delapidated state has comfy seats and the usual Bollywood TV blaring. Its a relaxing 1.5 hour ride, we pass through land that was obviously decimated by the 2004 Tsunami, giant scars cut into the coastline. We arrive in Pondicherry and catch a rickshaw to the Qualithe hotel, the driver warns us about the place but Odie checks it out anyway. It turns out that it is anything but qualithe, resembling a crumbling mental hospital. Our driver suggests a few places, something which we normally tend to avoid, but he comes up trumps with a delightful little french guesthouse run by a french guy from Montemarte.

The wide leafy paved roads of Pondicherry are a welcome change from the rest of India, there seem less people here, there are french road names, one could almost be in France. After some lunch we stroll along the promenade which runs parallel to a rocky coastline. Street vendors and Indian families remind us we are still in India. We leave the fremnch quarter to visit the Sacred Heart Church which is a beautiful Catholic Church built of red and white brick and even more impressive inside.

That evening we indulge in one of a few expensive meals (by Indian standards). Le Club serves us excellent seafood, my crab in saffron sauce should probably be served in Marseille but its here in Pondicherry. Also here is a bird that manags to shit on both of us while we are eating!

Wed 17th March - Pondicherry/Auroville

We take an auto rickshaw complete with squeaky toy horn to the new age village of Auroville. Its about 14km out of Pondi, and we soon leave the wide boulevards behind for the more traditional Tamil Nadu style town. Cows lurch in the road as rickshaws, motorbikes and cars clog the rest of the available space.

We head out of the town and finally turn off the main road gradually entering a greener more foresty area. We are dropped at the Auroville Visitor Centre situated in well manicured woodland. We are obliged to watch a short video explaining the history and future of this universal town. Many different people from all over the world have come together to build this place. They work in agriculture, sustainability technologies, music, education and also employ locals from the surrounding areas.

At the centre of it all is the Matra Mandir which is a 1km walk through a cooling forest. As first time visitors we are not permitted inside and have to view from afar. The Mandir was only completed a few years back and was the brainchild of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. It would take too long to describe it all here, check for more info! I must admit I find myself more interested in the ecological aspects of Auroville and the self sustainable technologies that they use than the spiritual aspects, but we both come away intrigued.

Later that afternoon we visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where people are paying their respects to both the Mother and Sri Aurobindo at a flower covered mausoleum. We are not allowed to see much else except browse their shop before heading out side to retrieve our footwear. That evening we enjoy another slap up meal, this time at Satsunga, and a rare bottle of wine!

Thu 18th March - Pondicherry to Madurai

We take a taxi to Villappuram Junction (about an hour away) to connect with a train that will take us to the ancient city of Madurai. The road is clogged with buses, rickshaws, bikes, cars and oxen carts. We pass cows with brightly coloured horns topped with brass tips oblivious to the road traffic. We arrive at the station in plenty of time and stock up on samosas and bhajis wrapped in dubious newspaper. We share our compartment with 2 Indian men and a lady, one man has some form of infected wound and as thus needs the entire of one side to lie down meaning the rest of us have to squeeze on to one side.

At about 4.30pm I can see the tops of the Madurai temples coming into view and we disembark into the hot afternoon sun. We leave the station and head towards our selection of chosen hotels. My first impressions of Madurai are almost comparable with Delhi, vehicle clogged streets, smog, sewage, rubbish and cow exrement carpeting the road. The first 5 places we try are apparently 'full' despite carying degrees of crustiness. I'm not sure if they are really full or if they just don't like the look of us. By now most of our chosen options have been exhausted, to make matters worse, Odie slips in some sewage and becomes Madurai's No.1 enemy.

Hot and tired we press on, one place resembles a derelict multi storey car park, there is no shower (just a bucket), ant infested 'beds', no windows, mould all over the walls but at least it has a temple view says the hopeful owner. We pass. The next place is better but still has ants so we agree with the owner that we'll look at his deluxe place. A short walk away we finally agree to a reasonable room with a TV, a bed and a few ants but luckily only in the bathroom. As I checkin, one of the guys says 'Tipsy', I mistake him for meaning that he is drunk, it turns out he wants some ruppees for opening our door!

We escape our uninspiring hotel into the traffic mayhem that are Madurai's streets towards the Sri Meenakshi Sundareshwarer Temple. We have to creep along the sides of the road to avoid being run over by the constant stream of traffic. The temple is worth the dangerous walk and we are greeted with the sight of a large gate tower covered with brightly coloured stucco gods and demons. Its an awesome sight but we decide to leave the rest of the temple to the next day and head back to a local tiffin canteen for a curry that costs about 60p. The evening is completed by visiting the bizarre Apollo 96 Sci-fi themed bar which resembles the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and presumably prices to match that far in the future. After one round of expensive drinks we head back to our room for some Bollywood TV.


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