mice and men
as mice shall they the
fighting beat down
mice and men
as mice shall they the
fighting beat down
Tough times. Tough calls. The lockdown was precisely that. What d’you do but crawl indoor & wait it out. Surfacing afterwards to revive & restore.
Between Covid waves 1 & 2 was Shekhawati. Logam! Off I go, taking chances but playing safe. Balance is everything. Pick up – drop off at the door step. Sanitised car 24×7, the driver never removing his mask.
The entire region was contagion free. Which was surprising ‘cos India’s first case of Covid had shown up here. Coming in from Jaisalmer, a group of itinerant Italians took suddenly ill. Realising it was the deadly virus the whole of Mandawa went into a tizzy. But that was March ‘20. Come October – November & lucky me. All about taking chances. Striking when hot.
Samode was the first port of call. I was booked at the ‘Bagh’ not ‘Palace’ which is everyone’s favourite. About 5 hours from Delhi I arrived to be shunted away – upgraded to Samode Palace because I was the only guest. A story repeated everywhere. As a people Rajasthanis are too decent & polite to turn anyone away. A guest least of all, especially a woman. I turned out to be the sole occupant at every castle, mahal & haveli. Welcomed and upgraded everywhere. Dining alone, was like being seated at a banquet after all the guests had left. This too had its moments.
Fairy castle – like, Samode Palace is stunning, grand & opulent. It is the namesake village in its midst that saddens & shocks. At total variance one wonders how such a beauteous Palace can co-exist alongside squalor & dirt and ruins that hark back to a splendid past.
Two nights at Samode & onwards via Sikar to Nawalgarh – a 2 hour drive.
It is the gateway to Shekhawati, a semi arid region bordering the Thar, known for its havelis, murals, frescoes, chatris, wells & Sati Mata temples. A visit to Poddar Haveli Museum is a must. A small & dusty town, a short walk around was an eye opener in that beauty parlours & girls on 2 wheelers were far removed from my idea of interior Rajasthan.
Mandawa is about an hour away from Nawalgarh. It boasts an 18 century fort castle & exotic havelis. I was booked at ‘The Mandawa Haveli’. Built in 1726 it has retained its original structure, design & ambience. It was like living in an open – air art gallery, part of the joy of waking up each day being to open ones eyes to countless murals & frescoes. Fading colours & threadbare rugs notwithstanding, the place spelt comfort. It was old world and – elegiac.
A word about the frescoes. Painted over an extended period of time most have religious themes or scenes from the epics. There is folklore & festival – Teej & Ganghor – and scenes from everyday life. Signalling the coming of the British, later murals depict white men & women in formal western attire. The advent of the motor car, rail carriage etc all captured in art & colour. My personal favourite was a birthing scene showing a group of women help one of their kind in labour. I also liked the Krishna series. There was Krishna on the telephone. And Krishna with the Gopis, making out with one or the other while a disgruntled third looked on. All this within the confines of a coach.
Most of the havelis are empty & dilapidated. The ones in Sikar have been demolished I’m told, to make way for – of all things – malls.
It is quite possible to suffer haveli fatigue. The best thing then is to venture out into the adjoining villages & get a feel & taste of the ‘real’ India. The countryside anyway is beautiful, especially from the window of a moving car.
‘Khejri’ along with Keekar covers a wide expanse of landscape. The ‘Khejri’ has multiple use, every part meeting a need. It’s fruit – kair sangri – a desert bean grows in clusters, the leaf is fodder for camel – cattle & the dry branches take care of farm boundary & fuel. The tree looks particularly beautiful when pruned – and that is often.
Enroute to Alsisar I stop at the Rani Sati Mata temple in Jhunjhunu. It is one of the oldest of its kind. I do so out of curiosity. Wondering what makes for the kind of faith & belief that persists.
Simpler to respect another’s feeling by far than try figuring out something clearly beyond comprehension.
Stopped for a wayside meal too. Not the regular lal maans – safed maans, gatte what have you. This was simple, homely fare. It was vegetarian & it was delicious. The meal consisting of bajra roti, batiya, khichri, Kaddi, Kaachra sabzi, lasava pickle, chilli – garlic chutney & peda.
Alsisar stood out like a redoubtable outpost. The stone ‘mahal’ magical, its tinge of pink matching the colours in the horizon. Remote & quiet both village & castle cast a spell.
A jeep safari that last evening was the perfect end to a beautiful day. Speeding cross country across low dunes in an attempt to spot black buck, deer & sambar, then watching the sun go down over steaming hot mugs of coffee. There was a quiet thrill to it all.
Swami Rampuri Maharaj
Sankatmochan Temple Hanumanchatti
2020 is the inauspicious year of the Bat_Man. A virus mutated in the badlands of Wuhan traveled from bat to man, grounding entire populations, halting the world in its tracks, forcing it to perceive itself anew- vis-a-vis life, work, travel.
Luckily for me, the year began quite auspiciously. Or so I think. Holiday, Dec’19 went into ‘20 & beyond, right up to Feb. Which is why the sledge hammer impact of a complete travel ban thereafter, fell with gentler effect.
The first month of the New Year had been spent loitering in and around the Cormondal coast. And here was I, relishing every moment, nine months later.
Coming to think of it, very little time is spent on ‘actual’ travel. I’d say only about 3-4 months a year – in real terms that is. One is however in perpetual travel mode, either planning journeys or savouring them, recalling strange encounters and reliving every nuance of an experience, much like poetic emotion,“recollected in tranquility”
I still want to know why that very interesting sadhu at Hanuman- Chatti did not give me the ‘hanuman chalisa’ he had so obviously brought out to give. It’s been 5 years but the thought continues to rankle. Just what was he thinking?
In Covid enforced solitude Eva comes readily to mind. Slim as a reed, she trudged the streets of Karaikudi because, “I want to lose weight……..”
“Do you watch Guru Dutt” she once asked.
I had heard of the French obsession with Guru Dutt. How they loved and admired his work just as the Russians did Raj Kapoor – Nargis-‘Awaara’ I had not however realised the extent of their fascination until Eva broke into song,”jaane woh kaise log the jinko pyaar se pyaar mila………”
It wasn’t merely song & tune, she understood the meaning.
Travel is not – nor ever can be, about ‘places’ alone. It comprises a gamut of imponderables and in-variables that come beautifully together. Take a visit to the Kanchi temple for example. The one that has a thousand and one lingams. This ancient temple is built around an even older mango tree. And mango, leaf and tree get incorporated in the famous Kanjeevaram weave. Temple hopping – imagine, not 1 or 2 but 1008 lingams – and shopping is interesting and fun but nowhere near meeting & interacting with real life characters.
Long black hair & glossy skin, Yellamma was a beauty, except that she often came across unkempt & untidy. Touching a delicate chord, she gave me her reason one day. She did not feel like doing anything, let alone dressing because she had been unable to get over the loss of a dearly beloved daughter. She had 3 sons she didn’t care about. They weren’t any good, much like her good for nothing husband. She had absolutely no desire to live.
Sharing ones private life & thoughts with a total stranger is to give wholly & completely of ones self. The rarest of gifts. Thank you Yellamma.
Or take Erica for that matter. She was from Sweden, a country I had visited the previous year. I ran into her at an Udupi restaurant in Pondicherry. Seated across from me, she was debating what to order, plying the hapless waiter with impossible queries.
What is Dosa? What is Uthappam? What is Idly?
What was each made of ?
Remembering the courtesy extended to me in her home country, I had of course to intervene and help. After that, we met practically every evening, walking the promenade or watching the waves hit the shore.
Foremost among modern, open & free societies, it was interesting to learn Sweden too had its share of MCP’s.
Erica’s marriage broke up because her husband had badgered & pressured her into starting a family. This, when the two had a pre nuptial agreement to the contrary.
With lockdown eased and ‘work from home’ the new norm, young people especially are already on the move. And ‘home’ mind you is anywhere and everywhere. Not only where heart but essentially where WiFi is. Ask the unencumbered Single already on the go, scouring the countryside from Goa to Manali.
Mention Covid to village folk around Manali and come face to face with pure, unadulterated innocence – not lost. They will look at you in wonder and ask “why ?….. are there no Gods where you come from?”
Eyes shut, an unbelievable image hovers into view. It is an expression of yearning & hope. And of regret and envy too.
Walking the African wilds is dear friend Kitty. Alone and unafraid. Staff in hand, among the lions.
You live only once but –
In another life, perhaps.
Village, Upper Manali
Saala Covid! Did a Pinjara Tor today. Visited the parlour & had a complete makeover. And does it feel good? You tell me – after 75 days of staying locked indoor.
The only way forward. Not being foolhardy of course but going by rules, taking care. The bastard likes a good fight. Give it to him. Once again………It feels good.
The salon itself was thoroughly & elaborately sanitized. By the hour, many times over. An elegant space. Unlike a hospital, it looked & felt beautiful. The hair stylist was delighted to have me return, as was I, surrounded by friendly, young, cheerful faces.
To look presentable is to be battle prepared – always. It’s half the battle won. So, on to tomorrow & tomorrow. And tomorrow.
We are in it together. For a long haul to boot. No mistake. So stay home, stay safe. Live to tell the tale. Today’s young will have something for their little ones. Spinning yarns. Of how a virus in far away Wuhan travelled from a bat to a human lung.
Like the many WhatsApp jokes – No Ming Ling. Who the hell is Social Distance Singh?- contagion literature of value too will emerge. Song, story & cinema, in an outpouring of creativity.
One thing’s certain. No one is coming through unscathed.
I am home bound & confined to a dull unused-to-routine that needs must be adhered to.
No way to live. But this is serious man. Seriously!
Household chores are interspersed with yoga – meditation. Also music & books to relieve & enliven.
Doing utensils by the sink I peer out at a clear blue sky. My window to the world outside. Something’s changed. Something’s changing.
On the 12th day of lockdown an unfamiliar cry rends the air. Like wheeling back in time to small town India, a vegetable vendor passes by. Delivering fresh veggies at the door step. At a fair price, what’s more.
We’ll get by, I think. No work. No pay but the poor are slowly finding ways. An auto rick pulls up another time. Passengers no more, the guy has decided to sell. Innovation? Tell me some more.
It’s been peacefully still & quiet. The cacophony you hear is birds. Loud & shrill. Dear, noisy, quarrelsome little creatures.
A sudden roar shatters the sky. Airport’s shut I thought. It’s a lone flight transporting someone somewhere. Stranded travellers perhaps.
A myriad feelings flit through the day. Of gratitude. And guilt. More of the latter. Keeping migrants in mind, specifically. Did they have to leave the way they did? To the imagined safety of faraway homes that just might be unwelcoming. Something would have worked out here. If only they had stayed.
There is a beggar at the gate. The first in years. Three children in tow, he actually rang the bell. What should I pass him through the bars? What should I say?
Everything inside is in limbo.
The country’s watching ‘Ramayana’.
The train halted in the middle of the night. To my surprise it was Madurai. Not my destination. I got off nevertheless. On a whim, just like that & spent the next 48 hours frequenting ‘Meenakshi Amman’, overwhelmed by the architecture, beauty & ambience. Her memory undimmed all these years.
In Madurai once again, the city looked unchanged. On the face of it at least. More traffic & crowds but tight security. The queue at entry points long & serpentine, reaching the Sanctum Sanctorum takes anything from 2 – 3 hours. This on a normal day. A measure of the change in four decades. As beautiful & resplendent as ever, there were no to & fro trips this time. Just a ‘quick’ darshan of the Fish Eyed One, then off to Rameshwaram.
Driving by the clean & open countryside was a welcome change. Soothing palms, fronds & paddy fields that kept increasing closer to the sea. Rameshwaram too had changed – but slightly. It was larger, dustier and smelt old – as always. An ancient town, the Ramanathaswamy temple is at its heart. Another marvel of architecture, it would have been wonderful to capture the perfect symmetry & alignment of the sculptured pillars but photography is not allowed. Just as it is not in Meenakshi.
The town is said to have 62 water bodies/tanks/wells or teerthams as they are called. 22 within the temple complex itself – water being an essential of ritual.
Less than 5 kms away is another smaller temple, purported to have the footprints of Lord Ram. 25 steps up the ‘Rama Padam’ plus another 20 to the terrace & you have a perfect birds eye view of the town – the Ramanathaswamy towering in the distance.
I asked a wandering sadhu about the footprints. I thought them too small. He laughed, calling it artistic imagination. License. But seriously …… Coming from a sadhu? “If this is how He is remembered so be it. ‘Ram ka naam‘ kept alive, whatever the way. It hardly matters”
25 kms away lies Dhanushkodi, a fishing village that the Tsunami all but wiped out. Marked by a pillar with an Ashoka emblem, it is Lands End. Beyond the Gulf of Mannar lies Sri Lanka, 8 kms as the crow flies. And connecting the two is what used to be Adams Bridge. Today’s Ram Setu, visible from land & air. A narrow sandbar, Dhanushkodi has sea on either side, the waters of the Indian Ocean & Bay of Bengal mingling here. There is an old church that survived the tsunami, a post office & a police post. The one hour trip costs Rs 1500 by taxi & Rs 60 by bus – buses available every half hour. The parking is about 500 metres short, one has to walk up to Lands End.
It was lovely at last to find a clean, un-littered beach & stray cattle that did not feed on plastic. I actually saw a cow searching for edibles inside a polythene bag. And junking it thereafter. The result of properly feeding animals I suppose – a common practice in these parts.
Ex President Kalams’ house-turned-memorial is a prominent landmark. Rameshwaram remember, is where he was born & brought up. The common mans’ perception of him therefore, telling & revealing. Said without any pride but great regret & repeated over & over again was the lament that the President had done no one, including himself any favours. “He did nothing for his family. Could have given them good jobs at least…….”
Tch Tch…… Indians!
Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.
Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a Tamil Nadu map. It is the area around it. 72 villages, Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.
First impressions count. Driving in, the countryside is lush green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however which catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramics – pottery of exquisite shape & design are still in use.
Karaikudi’s antique market at Muneeswaran Kovil has 17 shops stocked with a variety of interesting bric-a-brac. Cultural & household items of everyday use from down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around, happily enjoying it all.
The region is known for its cotton handlooms as much as its cuisine. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari especially. A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu with traditional design.
More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine popular all over India. I had the most delectable chicken kurma – ragi roti combo. It was out of the world. Also because the chicken was not a broiler.
Most people visit to see heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built themselves stately mansions, furnished with the best from around the world. Unlike palaces elsewhere built with public funds, these were built with their own hard earned money.
Kanadukathan, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Karaikkudi, has ‘Annamall’ a Chettinad palace that you can admire from the outside. There are others one can enter paying a small fee. ‘Aayiram Jannal Veedu,’ the house with a thousand windows. Or ‘Periya Veedu’ on a one acre plot. It has a hundred rooms.
Village Athangudi had several. Also a factory making hand made tiles with local material – cement, sand & glass.
Built on several acres, nobody today lives in these mansions. They are empty palaces showcasing opulence of a rare kind: Belgian glass chandeliers, Carara marble, ivory & teak from Burma, Japanese & Portuguese tiles.
Not only are the Chettiars ultra rich, they are also great philanthropists. It was therefore heart breaking to find a wretchedly poor family where a twelve year old has had to drop out of school in order to look after a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.
I came seeking ‘Our Lady of Good Health’ blessings, curious about the Basilica too.
A pilgrim town of repute, Velankanni has 5 other churches, a temple & a dargah. It is 162 kms, a 3.30 hour drive from Pondicherry. Down the coast, past several historic towns – Cuddalore, Parangipettai, Chidambaram, Poompuhar, Tranquebar –
The place itself is dusty & unremarkable. The beach lovely but – you guessed it – littered. The same old story. The dust & heat kept one indoors throughout the day. Lucky therefore to have found a nice place to stay. The big plus being the leisure of food, rest, sleep & time to enjoy & finish a good read – Taran Khan’s travelogue on Afghanistan.
One ventured out in the cool of the evening but there still was no place to go. Wandering around I chanced upon a village, a panchayat block rather, with thatched huts, clean, paved roads & a river running by. Making for a pretty picture & one-to-one interaction. Language no bar, for in the end, people are people. I was invited into their homes with shy smiles & ‘vanakams’
Velankanni is nicely located for a quick dash across to Tanjore & Trichy. Enroute, Vadalur lake had water to the brim & was host to a variety of migratory birds. Tanjore is an absolute must. The grand & impressive Brihadeeswara fort temple is early 11 century, Chola. It has little Nandis atop ramparts and murals on the outer corridors.
I thought the 7 tiered bell tower, topped with a clock, impressive too. This, at the Tanjore palace.
Trichy, next door, also has its ‘must sees’. There is the famous church of course. As well as the Rock Fort Ganesha temple. And the Kaveri – with its old & British era culverts – flowing quietly by.
I did not quite know what to make of Velankanni & the church signifying it. To put into words all that it conveys. Feelings of hope, faith & love. There certainly is an aura about the pearl like Basilica with beautiful stained glass & blue Crosses, visible from every part of town. It is the paraphernalia surrounding it that surprises & enthralls. Visited by people of all faiths, from all over it is a veritable conundrum of custom, belief & ritual. A church going westerner would be utterly flabbergasted.
One walks through milling crowds, past shops selling candles & flowers & everything else. Barbers also, for a sacrificial mundan/tonsure, should you want one. A deadly inter-religious mix that leaves one bewildered.
I visited around Pongal, a Harvest festival common to all. There were crowds in their festive best & a cauldron of Pongal cooking at the doorstep. Decorative Kolams adorned the churchyard where Prasadam was being distributed. Traditional breaking of coconuts, vermilion tilaks & a provision for special Darshan too. What looked like absolute chaos could well be a case of Hindu ethos over shadowing Christian belief or as I’d prefer to think – Indian secularism at its living best.
Strangest of all was the sight of a man blowing out candles the faithful had lit. Un-heeding to our protests & pleas. Making space for more candles perhaps. But that is hardly the way.
Rue petit canal
On everyone’s bucket list, Pondicherry retains a colonial flavour. ‘White Town’ in particular. Despite being cheek by jowl with a sprawling metropolis that is everything Indian, ‘White Town’ stands out, like a slice of France. Therein lies its quaintness.
It is a few Sq Kms of heritage with streets parallel to the promenade & the sea. It has wide tree lined boulevards, French colonial architecture, cafes, bars & boutiques. French street names too, honouring a historic Franco-India connect. Most of its residents have dual citizenship & income from homes converted to ‘home stays’.
A quick & easy getaway, Auroville is at a distance of 16 kms. With about 40,000 people & 40 villages in the larger bio regional area, it was conceived as a utopia. An experiment in international living, health initiatives & eco systems that has succeeded in greening & reviving a traditionally parched & arid land.
Pondicherry Tourism must reconsider Arikamedu & Ranga Pillai mansion on its list of ‘sights’. A 30 minute drive, Arikamedu is a Roman era archeological site with nothing on offer. Exhibits & finds all housed in the local museum, the only structure left standing is a ruin – 17 century French.
Ranga Pillay mansion is difficult to locate. Opposite the vegetable market, locals appear never to have heard of it. A 300 year home, 8 rooms on the ground floor have Tamil features while the top 8 are architecturally French. The present occupants are 10th generation descendants of Mr Ranga Pillay, official translator to Governor Dupleix. A man of wealth & renown, a widely traveled linguist, he is said to have kept an open house. Even today entry is free & visitors welcome. A heritage home that has stone floors & Burma teak interiors, it has quite obviously seen better days. Of interest now to students of architecture alone.
Closed to vehicular traffic between 4 pm – 8 am, the Promenade is the heart, soul & lung of Pondicherry. A 2-3 km stretch, it is a bustling place with Governor Dupleix standing guard at one end & the Mahatma the other. In between lie upmarket hotels, cafes, restaurants & a WW1 memorial that commemorates Bastille & Armistice Day. A live band performs every Saturday evening. Bringing weekend cheer & nobody in a hurry to rush back home. The morning has crowds of another kind – sunrise gazers, joggers, fishing trawlers & honeymooners, photo shooting in the most hilarious of poses.
Pondicherry to me will always be its raucous crows. Those cheeky rascals finding a perch on your head to swoop down for a peck below.
That and the waves crashing endlessly against the shore.
It had rained the night before. The morning crisp & cool with a day long drizzle that was more than welcome. (The sun harsh in these parts, even in winter.)
It is a two hour drive from Mahabalipuram. Via Chengalpattu – the countryside fresh, clean & beautiful.
An ancient town, Kanchi is known for its thousand temples, Ekambareswarar holding pride of place. Also called Shiv Kanchi, the 1500 year old temple is built around a 3000 year old mango tree under which Shiva – Parvati got married. So goes the legend. Green & tender, with several little shoots & off shoots it is obviously a case of expert grafting.
On 25 acres, the sandstone & granite structure is a stunning piece of architecture. It has the tallest gopuram (gateway/60 metres) & fascinating ‘mandapams’. The pillared corridors house 1008 lingams. With garlands & ‘tilaks’ each neatly in a row. It would be interesting to do a physical count. Not that there is any dispute or doubt.
There are temples. And temples. Each unique on its own – in South India especially. Not a temple goer, it is the architecture, more than ritual, that attracts. To find a quiet corner, to sit down & absorb. Then get up & get going, feeling completely re-energised & recharged. That’s what temple going is about.
The town is famous for Kanjeevarams. Saris every bride dreams of. It’s thriving silk weaving industry incorporates temple designs in silken weaves. The mango & tree not forgotten. Paisley motifs in subtle designs woven along the border or on the ‘pallu’. The weavers humble tribute to his antecedents – town, temple & tradition. He believes himself to be a descendant of the celestial weaver Sage Markanda who weaved silk & cotton garments for the Gods. What he earns is another matter, a question largely unanswered.
Kanchi by itself does not impress. The town has vestiges of old homes, few & far between but attractive still. Of brick, stone & wood these are low built & have tiled, sloping roofs. Keeping in mind the tropical climate which can be described as being hot – hotter – hottest. Wood being a poor conductor it’s use here most striking. Which leaves one shuddering at the modern day monstrosities. Heritage forgotten. Tradition out for a toss.
One man alone knows its worth & has endeavoured to preserve something before all is lost. A cardiologist from Apollo, Chennai. No one lives in ‘Kanchi Kadai’ but it has a caretaker welcoming anyone who cares. For a fee of course. Rs 10 only.
See, that’s how we lived!<