Before we leave Chettinadu we take a quick trip through the local villages to view some of the residences and palaces left over from the golden age. We marvel at the pristine nature of the palace, (above), although we can only do so from the outside, but our guide sweet-talks us into one of the residences, which is in remarkably good condition. Most of the owners of these palaces now live in a normal, manageable sized homes, and these houses are used only for weddings and ceremonial occasions.
But then it’s back in the car and on to Madurai, which is Tamil Nadu’s second largest city. Madurai is one of India’s most ancient cities, trading with the Greek and Roman Empires while our civilisation was barely out of the dark ages. After dinner a new local guide collects us and takes us to the evening ceremony at the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This huge 17th century temple sprawls over 6 hectares with 12 tall gopurams. But the thing that makes it special this evening is the fact that it’s alive with activity. There are stalls and little shops selling all sorts of offerings for darshan, all illuminated by the flickering of a hundred oil lamps.
According to legend, (and to our guide), Meenakshi was a version of Pavarti, who became Shiva’s consort. At around 9pm, an icon of Shiva is brought from the inner sanctum in a little palanquin and paraded through the temple, in a cloud of smoke, incense, bells and lights, followed by a small crowd of devotees and an equal sized crowd of westerners. After a ritual with more smoke, devotions and offerings, Shiva is tucked in with his beloved Meenakshi for the night.
In many Hindu temples cameras are forbidden, but in this one while we couldn’t take a camera, a cell phone camera was acceptable on payment of a small fee.
Next morning we’re off early to the wholesale flower market, from where flowers are despatched locally and as far afield as Holland.
We then visit the Palace and just before lunch we’re back at the temple for a more considered exploration. We explain to our guide that we don’t want a big splashy lunch in a restaurant filled with Westerners but something a little more authentic. He asks us if we’d heard of Rick Stein. We assure him that not have we heard of Rick but we both know his second, and current, wife Sass, extremely well. He takes us to The Modern Restaurant, where the sambar has been praised by Rick and we eat a sensational lunch off banana leaves with our fingers. The bill for two – 200rp or about $4! That evening we take a tuktuk into town and dine at the #1 restaurant on Tripadvisor. Again it’s fabulous food, we’re the only white faces in the restaurant, and the total bill is a touch over $8.
When we arrived in Madurai, in the early evening, there was a sign in the hotel saying it was a “Dry Day” and the bar would not open. The sign was there again the next day and as the Sree Sabarees, where we dined was not licensed anyway, I’ve now had four alcohol-free days out of eight. I’m feeling very abstemious.
Next morning, we were booked on the 4.15am express to Nagercoil, but our travel company has made an executive decision and has pulled us off the train The railway junction at Madurai has been blockaded by the Jallikutta protesters for three days, and though this dispute is now sorta settled, they have arranged a car instead. We are a little disappointed in this as this we enjoy our train journeys, and this was the only one this time. Last year we had two overnight train rides, three quite long day trips plus the Shimla toy train and we enjoy rubbing shoulders with the locals. They’re always delightfully friendly and are always prepared to help us up onto the roof of the trains. Maggie was especially looking forward to the unlimited chai as the men prowl the train with their cries of “chai – i. chai-i”. However, we get a few extra hours in bed and leave at 7.00am for the tip of India. Our new driver, who will be with us for the next 9 days, is named Vino – much easier to pronounce and remember, and with goodish roads and a heavy foot he has us at Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) at about the same time as the train would have arrived.
Our first stop is the Kumari Amman temple. Maggaie has promised this is our last temple, and I have threatened that if it’s not, the next one for her will be the Temple of Doom. She walks ahead as we enter this temple to the virgin goddess Kumari, then stops and gives me a look as I have removed my shirt. Before she can verbalise her obvious question, I indicate the sign that insists all men entering the temple must remove their shirts. I’m not sure of the meaning of this.
We are now almost at the very tip of India and a few minutes after leaving the temple we have arrived, joining the hundreds of pilgrims and holidaymakers who flock to the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is the only spot in India that you can watch the sunrise and the sunset. (Sometimes all at once.)
We are to take a local ferry to the small island 400 metres offshore which contains the memorial to the Hindu apostle Swami Vivekanda. There’s a stiff breeze blowing, and as we walk down to the ticket office I can see the headline, Indian Ferry Tragedy flashing in my mind’s eye. Our guide is crestfallen; the ferries have been cancelled due to the rough weather. Somewhat relieved, we view the memorial, and the next-door Thiruvalluvar statue from the safety of the shore.
We make a quick stop at Gandhi memorial then it’s onto the Padmanabhapuram Palace, our last stop for the day. This palace, begun in the 1550s and with a forest load of rosewood and teak, is considered to be the finest example of Keralan architecture standing today. It is Asia’s largest wooden palace, and was once the capital of an unstable princely state, Travancore, that stretched across Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. One of the interesting aspects of this hereditary line is that the King could not marry, (concubines were perfectly OK of course) and the title passed to the oldest nephew, who also remained single. It is an eye-opening piece of construction across 6.5 acres.
Then we crossed the border into Kerala and are now installed on the beach at Kovalam where will spend three nights and two days doing nothing. We’re a little road-weary; we’ve travelled many miles on some very minor roads and seen many wonderful things but now it’s time to take stock before we begin part 2. It’s warm and sunny, and the palm trees are rustling in the gentle breeze. The hotel is perched on a cliff high above the beach so we’re perfectly safe from tsunamis. The sea is warm and safe to swim in, and Kerala has none of that “dry day” nonsense we experienced across the border. Hooray! Let’s celebrate with a cold Kingfisher. Or two?