South from Chennai

Our first morning back in India, and we were squeezed into the back of a tuktuk in Chennai. There was an all-pervading odour of rotting fish, which, given that we are on the coast is perhaps not surprising. Maggie wrinkles her nose, “Is it sardines?”, she asks. Then I realise to my horror that the smell is traveling with us, and is emanating from our corpulent, sweaty Tamil driver. We are trying to find the home of the Theosophical Society, with its reportedly beautiful gardens and Adyar Library. But our driver has no idea where they are, has no English, and clearly cannot read the map I keep jabbing in his face. He stops numerous times, asking other tuktuk drivers, members of the military and sundry passers by. Eventually we arrive at the famed Huddleston Theosophical Society Gardens. But they are closed. “I am sorry sir, it is a government holiday”. Welcome (back) to India!

We had arrived late the previous night, the six hour time change meaning that we were getting into bed about the time we should have been getting out of it. But restored with an excellent breakfast of Dosai and Chai we were ready for the day. Breakfast was disturbed only by the high voltage electrical crackle and bright blue flashes, as a pest controller roved the restaurant with a tennis racquet shaped object, seeking out the errant mosquito and despatching it to mosquito heaven in a single flash.


Our guide for the past two days has been Mrs Manimekalai, a widow perhaps 10 years our senior. She is a large woman in a sari with a brusque manner that encourages no small-talk, but her knowledge is spot-on. She takes us first through the George Town area where many buildings, such as the railway station (above), have survived from colonial times. But as many are beautifully restored, an equal number are no much more than decaying ruins. A slow ride down Marina Beach in the holiday traffic shows us the areas that were destroyed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. We stop at the Officers’ Mess at Fort St George to view the small but interesting museum with an amazing collection of gigantic portraits including many members of the British monarchy and Robert Clive, (Clive of India) himself.


Our final stop for the day was the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, dedicated to Shiva and built around 1566 after the Portuguese destroyed the original. Its most striking feature is the gopuram, the brightly painted gateway tower with its hundreds of figures that stands above the surrounding buildings.

Next morning, with Mrs M in tow, we left Chennai and stopped in Kanchipuram, a small town with a couple of interesting temples and a thriving silk trade. We’ve become quite skilled at handling the guide’s suggestion that we stop at one manufacturing facility or another as we know the demonstration will inevitably end with a hard sell. But the silk was of excellent quality and we were soon on the road again heading for Mamallapuram. Here we viewed the amazing “rathas” temples, which have been carved out of a single piece of granite. When you consider that in the 7th century, when they were built, the tool set of the local artisan would have been pretty limited, these temples, although lacking the grandeur of Chennai or Kanchipuram, are still very special.


We drop Mrs M at the bus station and tip her goodbye. She has been with us for the past day and half, and now, at around 4pm she faces a 3 hour bus ride back to Chennai and then a further hour commute home. We thank her profusely and then our driver drops us at the Ideal Beach Hotel where we will spend the night. There is a dance performance on the beach we’d like to see, but the Ideal Beach Hotel is 4kms from town and there is no obvious sign of a tuktuk service. It is actually far from “Ideal”. Next morning we will drive to the French influenced city of Pondicherry.

When we arrived in Chennai we were met by the travel agent’s rep, and before we left the airport, he fastened a Mouli, made of red and yellow cotton, around our wrists. The cynical reader might think this is so we can be easily identified in a hotel lobby, but the Mouli protects the wearer from evil, and we are given them to keep us safe for our visit. Last year in the north, the Mouli worked perfectly. But this afternoon, the Mouli blinked for a moment, and we suffered a fender-bender while stopped to pay the toll on the motorway. It was a fairly minor hit, but it was a bus that hit us from behind, so we suffered surprise and our car suffered some panel damage. The occupants of the bus all alighted to view the damage; then the highway patrol arrived, probably seeking a bribe so they could identify the guilty party.


Even though we were the aggrieved, Narayanan, our diminutive driver was soon surrounded by the opposing forces and the two cops who didn’t seem to be doing much at all. Pulling myself up to my full height I stood behind him with my arms folded across my chest and my best “Don’t fuck with us” look until it was over. “Brake failure”, Narayanan mumbled as we retuned to the car and set off to Pondicherry.

As we approached Pondicherry we detoured to Auroville a community that requires its members to be a “willing servitor of the Devine Consciousness”. The heart of the growing community, currently 2,200 people from some 45 nations, is the Matrimandir shown below. Built over a number of years it stands four stories high and is covered in gold panels using the same technique as the Golden Palace in Bangkok. Although today we could only gaze from afar, Maggie said the power emanating from it was immense, and she already has her hand up to book a visit where one can spend the day meditating inside Inner Chamber of the Matrimandir.


We checked into our little charming little 10-room hotel, and set out to walk the streets of Pondicherry. Tomorrow we have a walking tour booked but there were a couple of items on our list we needed to tick off. The Manakula Vinayagar temple, constructed around 1666 is dedicated to our favourite deity, Lord Ganesha, the elephant god. Ganesha is the god of wisdom and the destroyer of obstacles. He’s our kinda god and those who know our Sydney balcony will know we have a statue there to him. It’s a gorgeous temple, but outside there was an elephant named Laksmi, (goddess of prosperity and wealth), who gave Maggie a blessing with her trunk.


And that pretty much brings us up to date. More from us in a few days when we’ll have left the coast behind and arrived in the centre of Tamil Nadu, just in time for the annual Pongal (harvest) celebrations.

Happy Pongal!

3 thoughts on “South from Chennai

  1. Hi Derek,

    That’s the most stimulating prose I’ve read this week and the pictures are just fantastic.

    Is Martyn or specifically Jaqui on the mailing list?

    You are giving us a most entertaining view of India and delightfully filtering all the shit and frustration you’re both experiencing
    Into humorous prose.

    That’s rather brilliant albeit a bit hard on you guys….

    However, I’m in awe of your observations, your local practical and spiritual knowledge of “things Indian” but confess I’m happiest reading
    your prose from afar and viewing your fantastic pictures both of which engage me as if I was there.


    Seems New Zealand’s having an early winter with snow on Ruepehu this week and an environment of disgust as to “where did our summer go?”

    So it looks like “Sydney here we come” … even just to walk Bondi to Tamarama or go to the movies……

    I think Mad would agree on a weekend soon

    Love to you both


    Martyn and Jaqui turned on a great farewell party for Tom and about 15 of his mates last night.

    Really just us, Althea (who is staying in the cottage) and Toms friends

    A very happy but sad night but happiness totally prevailed as we’ll see more of him in Sydney than we did in Dunedin

    (You can imagine how well he’s being set up in Sydney in terms of life style…)



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  2. Derek Loved your latest notes on India but it does not make me want to rush over unless you were the guide !
    All good here. Even have had a smattering of rain and two water deliveries so far this summer.
    Off to Vietnam on Tuesday to stay with sonny Jim
    All the best John & MA


  3. Hello Derek and Maggie

    Derek your wonderful descriptive prose brings it alive for me.

    Trish Allen is coming to India at the end of this year. May I pass on your Blog to her?

    Its so well written and such great activities.

    Love Barb


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