Our destination today is Kumbakonam, one of Tamil Nadu’s temple towns (Pete is thrilled to hear this!), some 4 hours drive from Pondicherry. As you can imagine the time taken to reach your destination does not reflect the distance. Rather, you have to factor in the fact that the roads are often very narrow; with lots of speed humps in towns and villages, and an enormous range of obstacles – vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road; bikes and tuk tuks suddenly veering across in front of you ; vehicles deciding to stop not quite off the road; cows and goats wandering across the road and so it goes on. Our admiration for Rajesh’s driving skill is growing as he has to be constantly aware of what is happening behind, beside and in front of him – a skill he manages whilst keeping up a fairly constant stream of (often one sided!) conversation. And, his knowledge of the roads and the countryside we are passing through is formidable.
We were highly chagrined to discover that he sleeps in the car each night. Apparently this is what all the drivers do. It makes us feel even more like rich pampered Westeners traveling through the colonies. I must confess I have found myself occasionally nodding and bestowing the Royal wave upon villagers as we travel past. Mortifying. Anyhow, back to the road.
The drive is fascinating as we travel through increasingly rural areas. Apart from crops – sugar cane, rice – we see plantations of eucalyptus and casuarina trees ( the later being used for scaffolding among other things). The farmers rely heavily on irrigation as Tamil Nadu is a very dry state (in more ways than one, at least in ‘temple towns’). Fighting over water supply from other states takes up a lot of political time and angst according to Rajesh.
As we move further into small rural villages we see that the homes are tiny – both in size (often one room affairs) and height (with very low entrances). These houses are usually clustered in a line right up against the roadway so as not to take up any arable land. Some are made from mud, some are concrete, some are thatched.
Rajesh is taking us to see an ancient Chola temple some 35 kms from Kumbakonam. This is called colloquially the Little Temple as it was built by the son of the man who built the Big Temple at Tanjavur that we will see tomorrow. Apparently the son couldn’t make his tower bigger than his Dad’s temple – but Kitta and I think he did a much better job on the inside than Dad.
It is our first Chola temple made from simple stonework, and it is beautiful. Intricately ochre coloured carved stone that was probably once painted but is now just plain stone, as despite much restoration they have wisely left the new, or cleaned, stonework pristine. The only problem is that we arrive about 12.30 and one must remove one’s shoes upon entering a temple precinct. By this time the surrounding stone paving and stone steps into the inner sanctum of the temple have been exposed to the glaring sun all morning. The result being we suffer something akin to 3rd degree burns on the soles of our feet. However, seeing us hopping from foot to foot and bleeting in pain provides a group of young rascals a great deal of amusement as they loiter in the shade of a nearby tree.
We are spending the night at a resort called Mantra Veppathur, which takes us a few false starts to find as it is a new place for Rajesh. It is not surprising that he has some difficulty initially as it is situated on the outside of town, tucked away down a rural road and over a one car bridge, hidden amongst acres of coconut palms.
We are assigned our own villa, complete with outdoor shower, and a rocking chair on the verandah (however, it proves far too muggy, and a bit too mosquitoey, to actually enjoy spending time in the chair).
We hightailed it to the dining hall as it was now 2.00pm, and had been promised excellent vegetarian food here. We were not disappointed. Revived and fortified we were ready for our tour of the town’s temples with a local guide. We start at the sacred water tank, the waters of which emulate the sacred Ganges River – people come to bathe in the tank for purification and blessing.
I have to confess that I tend to glaze over as soon as any of the guides launch into the history of the temples – the names are all so long and complicated, the gods all seem to be inter-related that it is just too confusing. So sorry, I can’t recall what the names of the temples were but they were very garish, and tall. And, two of them had erotic carvings on their lower levels (ancient marketing perhaps?). The mind boggles at the work that has a) gone into the temple’s construction and b) into the repainting of the towers.
Kitta gets quite excited at this temple as it turns out that Ramanujan, the famous Indian mathematician, was born and raised in the street leading to the temple – which will probably only mean anything to another mathematician or those of you who, like Kitta, saw the recent film The Man Who Knew Infinity.
Meanwhile, my eye is drawn to the local snack maker on the corner, so we go to investigate. The first one is making paratha, a sort of ‘bread’, where the dough is kneaded, rolled and stretched and then placed on the hot grill. It initially puffs up before flattening down and becoming all flaky and toasty.
Then on to our last temple, this time another stone Chola temple that has been given UNESCO classification. The carvings on the pillars are intricate and each and everyone tells a story (unfortunately the guide tries to tell us far too many of them – it is enough for us just to wander and marvel). Much to Pete’s annoyance we are blessed by the priest and leave wearing the white dot on our forehead (mind you, you have to hand over 10 rupee for the blessing as it turns out, which makes him even crosser!).
I love that the temples are so integrated into the people’s lives. They come to worship of course, but also to socialise, to have a picnic, and to court. This young lady looks as if she is deep in spiritual thought when in fact she is gazing, and giggling, into the eyes of a rather handsome young man. I wonder if her Mum knows.
Our last stop is into a traditional Southern India coffee shop for a cup of coffee that is made from a mixture of coffee and chicory, which in turn is mixed with milk and of course sugar, and served in a little brass cup. To both mix and cool the drink you pour it from saucer to cup a couple of times before drinking it. It is actually quite delicious.
By this time the heavens have opened and the short sharp rain has made it almost impossible to get out of the coffee shop without wading through knee deep water, but Rajesh manages to manoeuvre the car so we are able to leap from the stoop into the car, not gracefully but at least with dry feet.
Dinner that night at Mantra Veppathur is both delicious, and entertaining. As one of only a tiny handful of guests staying, and the only whities, we are a major source of interest and fascination for the serving staff – so, we enjoy the delicious food while in turn we provide a floor show for the gaggle of staff who loiter around our table watching our every move. Now I know how the animals feel at the Zoo! This interest escalates when they discover we are not English but Australian, as the head waiter, the very charming Rajarajan, has a brother living in Melbourne.
Another fascinating day. I go to sleep under the watchful gaze of the nodding head of this lady – I love her. Pity she won’t fit in my suitcase.