States in India are like different countries in Europe. You go through a border (well it’s more like going through a parking boom at a shopping centre) and over the other side everything is different. Crossing the state border from Kerala to Tamil Nadu in Thekkady was our first experience of this. Over on the Tamil Nadu side, the language suddenly changed from Malayalam to Tamil, the written alphabet was different (but no less squiggly to our untrained eyes), people looked different and the temples took on a Disney-fied look.
We drove through deep-rural Tamil Nadu, past fields upon fields of coconut palms, tiny villages blaring discordant music from speakers on the main road, and getting lost (luckily our driver Jivan, who’s from Cochin in Kerala speaks Tamil, or we might still be there), before finding our way to Cardamom House, a charming homestay in the middle of nowhere, run by chatty Brit expat Chris Lucas.
Cardamom House is a good spot for day trips into Madurai, which we did – to see the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which was like a temple theme park. The 16th temple, dedicated to the triple-breasted, fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi is made up of a six-hectare complex that includes a shopping arcade, countless oil-anointed statues, corridors lined with naked goddesses, halls of people threading flower garlands, and passageways thick with incense smoke. There are 12 towers surrounding the temple covered with rainbow-coloured gods, goddesses, demons, guardians and heroes. In short, it’s mental. It was hard to get a grip on the place, being whisked through in an hour by our eager guide: it was another of India’s mind-boggling sensory overloads.
Despite its rural setting, there’s a lot to do around Cardamom House, including village tours, hiking and swimming in the nearby lake, but unfortunately, just a few days before flying back home, this was when the dreaded Delhi Belly struck me. I was out of action for three days, and totally missed out on our next destination, Chettinad, which is famous for its spicy food. I stuck to boiled vegetables, rice and curd and didn’t move from the four-poster bed in our elegant room at Visalam Mansion while Joe feasted on delicious spicy curries and fish at its rooftop restaurant, and explored the crumbling village, and gracious mansions once home to the rich Chettiar merchants.
I’d perked up by the time we had to leave for the long drive to Pondicherry, thanks to copious amounts of coconut water, lime juice and bananas. Along the way we stopped at the magnificent 11th century Brihadiswhara Temple where I was blessed by another elephant for 10 rupees, and burned my feet on the baking stones of the temple floor. Feeling to weak to walk around the temple, I sat on some stairs in the shade of a giant elephant statue, and watched life go by, as you would in Paris at a coffee shop, or on a bench at the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town. I was the only Westerner around, and yet no one looked at me twice. Two middle-aged women chatted and laughed incessantly, obviously having a juicy gossip, a group of schoolgirls raced down a corridor of the ancient temple, giggling and playing Bollywood tunes on their phones, and families sat on the grass sharing picnics. I love that about Indian temples – religious life isn’t quiet and subdued as it is in Europe – it’s part of everyday, nosiy, chaotic and exuberant life.
After a full day of driving, we reached Pondicherry (now officially known as Puducherry, although most people call it Pondi), a former French city of faded colonial elegance. Pondi quickly turned out to be my favourite place in Tamil Nadu and I was sorry that we only had a few days there before we flew back home. Unlike other Indian cities, Pondi is easily navigable on foot – the old city has hardly any traffic, and is mostly traversed by French people on bicycles. It’s surreally French, actually – there are pockets of French expats still living here, streets have French names and French signs, coffee, croissants, crepes and baguettes are big, and there’s a relaxed Mediterranean air about Pondi that made it so different to anywhere else in India.
We shopped at quirky boutiques (such as Play Clan), piling shopping bags full of presents to take home, drank coffee and our last sweet lime juices, got blessed by Lakshmi, the elephant at the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, visited a Catholic church where Mary was dressed in a sari and copious amounts of gold jewellery, ate flaky croissants with preserves, strolled along the promenade, browsed bookshops, visited the new-age Auroville settlment (an experiment in alternative living started in the 1960s), and peeked in the Aurobindo ashram which was peppered with pyjama-ed Westerners looking zen.
And suddenly, five weeks in India came to and end and it was our last day with Jivan, our wonderful driver, who’d taken us from one side of India to the other, teaching us about history, culture, religion and the meaning of life (literally – we had many existential discussions on the long drives). On our way up to Chennai and our flight to Dubai, we had our last temple visit at Mamallapuram where we braved sweltering humidity and thieving monkeys to explore temples and intricate carvings made out of giant boulders. You could spend days at Mamallapuram unravelling all the symbols in the thousands of stone artworks, but we only had an hour, no guidebook and no guide so we took the elephants and snake-beings (nagas) at face-value.
Jivan wanted to take us to a ‘special coffee place’ before dropping us off at the airport in Chennai, and so our last drink in India was iced frappes at an air-conditioned chain coffee shop on the outskirts of the massive city.
Where to stay in Tamil Nadu
Cardamom House is a lovely, cosy homestay in rural Tamil Nadu and offers a much-needed respite from chaotic Indian cities. There are seven rooms, which overlook the rambling garden and lake. Dinners are taken with other guests and owner, Chris Lucas, on the roof under the stars and are a mixture of homecooked Indian dishes and British favourites. The staff, all from local villages, and trained by Chris, are wonderful.
Visalam is a stylish Chettiar mansion, with spacious rooms set around a courtyard, a rooftop garden, large swimming pool and tranquil garden. As at all the CGH Earth properties, the food was excellent (although I only tasted a bit of it) and the staff were attentive and went out of their way to make our stay better – they were all very concerned about me being sick and constantly brought me food and drinks they thought would make me feel better.
In the Tamil quarter of Pondicherry, Maison Perumal is a boutique hotel in a restored mansion. Although only a few metres away from the bustle of the main street, Maison Perumal was quiet and tranquil – a great spot to relax in after a long day of walking.
Tim Durham from Colours of India organised my five-week trip to India and I really recommend him and the local agents he uses. You can contact Tim on tel 021-813-9778, email firstname.lastname@example.org or www.colours-of-india.co.za.
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