2017 is the year of UK-India year of culture – www. uk-india.britishcouncil.in – inaugurated with a spectacular light display across the front of Buckingham Palace. There is a fabulous new film, Viceroy’s House, the Real Marigold Hotel is on our tv, so what better time to head off to India again to explore more of this fascinating, huge and diverse land.
India always surprises and our first day found us centre stage at an Indian wedding at large temple in Chennai. We had gone to visit and were delighted to see a wedding taking place, garlands and gorgeous saris and lots of noise and music. I was keen to ensure that it would be ok to take photos, which it is absolutely was, and we then found ourselves in the photos too! We were even interviewed on the wedding video! I have an image, 20 years on, of distant relatives saying ‘Err, who exactly are they?’
Two days to recuperate in Chennai and then off to explore the culture of Tamil Nadu, not for nothing known as the land of temples.
This is an area less explored by tourists but incredibly rich in ancient temples which still resonate to the sounds of the Tamil poets, reciting from poems and scripts that, though written in the 6th -12th century and even earlier, are as familiar to the temple attendees as our own hymn books. The Brihadeeswarar Temple is one of the largest in India and part of the Unesco World Heritage Site known as the Great Living Chola Temples. Although over 1,000 years old the temple bustles with activity, Brahmins perform their various duties, worshippers queue in the relative cool of the interior, dimly lit by oil lamps and tiny clay puja lamps, bats flutter overhead and the potent smell of incense and jasmine swirls around creating an atmosphere which made me think that I had been transported back to a temple in ancient Greece. It is hard to describe the atmosphere, a heady mix of many unfamiliar sights and sounds, but we were made very welcome and emerging sometime later into the mid-day glare was a shock, almost as if we had been catapulted back into the 21st century by a time machine! The coir mats laid around the site were incredibly welcome as the soles of our feet were seared by the heat of the stone – and the fresh coconuts we purchased to drink on the way out were certainly welcome. On to Pondicherry, a breezy town by the sea with a decidedly French accent, having been a French and still administered as a French enclave – baguettes and bhajees, kepes and kulfi seem to work remarkably well in juxtaposition and the opportunity to stroll along the seafront is always a draw. Our base in Pondicherry was the elegant Palais de Mahe, cool interiors, a welcome pool and, as ever, the friendliest of service. Pondi is a favourite as it is remarkably easy to navigate being set out on a grid system, has some very stylish coffee shops and boutiques and a delightful central park which offers a little relief from the heat of the day – and the addition of fruit bats hanging around in the trees waiting for evening!
After two days of relaxing sea air we headed off to the extraordinary area of Chettinad – erstwhile home of the Chettinars, legendary bankers and traders who celebrated their wealth and success by building huge mansions using the wonderful materials they imported from around the world, from Italian marble to Burmese teak – and cast iron from Birmingham for the staircases. Most of these extraordinary buildings are empty or have a caretaker living in one of the rooms and they are melancholy places echoing with the lost voices of the families who were so proud to build them. However we were fortunate enough to stay in Visalam which is a beautifully restored mansion with cool floors of the famous handmade tiles and glowing walls of crushed shell and ….. There are no mini bars and tvs in the rooms, as that would mean destroying the wonderful walls, but there is a great communal space where a vintage radio plays, you can play one of the old Indian board games or just recline in a vintage chair and watch the butterflies and chickens before strolling to the pool for a cooling dip. There is so much to see and explore here, including the extraordinary horse temples of the region. Dedicated to the God Ayyanar, these temples exist near villages in Tamil Nadu as Ayyanaar is thought to be the protector of villages, riding out at night on his horse to ensure that all is well. Over hundreds of years worshippers have brought terracotta horses to the temple as offerings and these strange and beautifully crafted gifts line the way to the temple itself. Over the years they have become faded and cracked, losing ears and legs and leaning on their neighbours, the sun fades the colours, butterflies land on noses and lizards flick in and out and it is almost impossible to describe the atmosphere of these ancient places, isolated and silent except for the sound of birds.
As ever our driver Joshy was a vital part of everyday life, keeping us safe, avoiding the inevitable driving hazards and organising what needed organising – everyone should have a Joshy! My favourite moment was when he was navigating us through a very busy street, buses everywhere and coming towards us was a traditional bullock cart which he said I absolutely needed to see. Swift u turn and back over the regional border, much to the bemusement of the border police who had just waved us through coming the other way – follow that bullock cart!
The heat of the plains was soon replaced by some cooler air – up into the tea plantations to stay in a thatched villa in the trees, at the Spice Village. This is a place to recharge and rewind, where Langyar monkeys can be seen in the distance, the 50 restaurant ensures that no ingredient has travelled more that 50 kms to your plate and Woods room offers an amazing glimpse into the early days of Lake Periyar, – and a wonderful vintage billiards table. It is also where, when the temperature drops below 27 degrees a hot water bottle is thoughtfully placed in your bed!
Down again to the backwaters and some rest and relaxation – time to sit out and watch the nightly fruit bat fly past at Coconut Lagoon, take a leisurely trip in a slow boat and appreciate life at a slower pace. Children pedalling past on their way to school, smart and proud in their uniforms, Mum doing the dishes, temple music drifting on the air and life on the backwaters gliding past with the flash of a kingfisher. We are always glad to see our friends in these charming and unusual hotels, catch up with what is going on and meet new friends too – it feels like being part of a very big and welcoming family and is very special. So it was with slight trepidation that we were driven a few short miles around the lake to a new experience at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. Situated with open lake views this is where HRH Prince Charles spent a recent birthday – and I have to say he chose well! The setting is stunning and our villa with its own pool was a welcome retreat at the end of an exhausting day relaxing! I had an ayervedic massage which is one of the very special treats that one can have in this part of India – a cultural tradition that is taken very seriously, some treatments require a doctor’s appointment before you start, but my massage with ayurvedic oil was a total treat. The only challenge was, with well oiled feet, making it from the massage couch to the shower, but that safely navigated but I emerged as sleek as an otter!
Our final stop was Kochi, where the latest Marigold incumbents were based – and at last to coincide with a great cultural event – the Biennale, a fabulous and unusual celebration of art. Our base at Brunton Boatyard gave us great views over the iconic Chinese fishing nets, history restaurant gave us innovative and wonderful food and as ever at this end of the holiday the chance to sit back and reflect on old friends and new friends, anticipated pleasures and new discoveries – and the lure that makes us come back time and again to uncover yet more layers of the great culture and welcoming people that is India.
Take a torch – essential for frequent powercuts.
If, as comments about our own travels would suggest, you are worried about getting a poorly tum, here are our top tips.
When you get to your hotel put a bottle of mineral water in the middle of the wash hand basin to remind you not to ever put tap water in your mouth, including cleaning teeth.
Take Travel Support pills from a good chemist – putting good bacteria into your gut to fight any baddies you may encounter!
Don’t eat ice cream, and if you can avoid it don’t have ice in your drinks unless you are very sure that it is ok to do so, five star hotels seem ok.
Avoid re heated rice at buffets – wherever you are, this is a really big cause of bad tums.
Be sensible about what you eat and give your tum time to acclimatise – don’t order the hottest dish on the menu to be macho, be good to your digestion!
Our sincere thanks to:
CGHEarth We now consider these hotels our home from home in India, the warmth of the welcome never dims and the commitment and dedication of the staff is quite exceptional.
Kumarakom Lake Resort a very special place, new to us on this trip but already an essential part of the next!
Kuoni who always go the extra mile to ensure that our travels are memorable in the best possible way – and to Joshy our wonderful driver -and friend.
‘If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India!”
― Romaine Rolland