Author Archives: nataliehelen

Sugary Jaggery

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Throughout India, you can see small roadside stands on which machines with big metal handles wait to be cranked into action (by hand or with the aid of small generators), to wring sweet green juice from thick canes stacked up nearby.

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I came across this stand on the riverbank in Hampi, reliant on parched tourists passing by. The young boy, helping his father, spun the handle furiously to send the canes through the wringer.

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In Bundi, sprigs of fresh mint or quartered limes were pushed through with the sugar cane, to flavour the juice. Wherever rice and wheat are grown, it seems, a crop of sugar cane with its distinctive spiky green leaves and reddish brown canes will not be far away.

On the road to Periyar, we stopped the van and crossed between paddy fields to this small shack, to see the preparation of another common sugar product in action.

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Jaggery is unrefined sugar with only a minimum of processing and no added ingredients. Raw sugarcane is crushed in a machine only slightly more industrial than the roadside hand-crank, to extract the juice.

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This is poured into a vast wok-shaped pan, under which a fire is lit using the dried husks and leaves of the sugar cane – nothing is wasted.

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The juice evaporates, sending a sickly smell through the air, and leaving a thick granular paste…

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…which can be shaped into balls or tubes to harden, or poured into shallow trays to set and be cut into squares.

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It’s used for sweets and to add richness to curries, varying from region to region. It’s also an ingredient in palm wine/toddy.

Or you can just drink the juice, which tastes, well… pretty much like liquid sugar.

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20120323-131122.jpg Cheers!

How to make bricks

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It’s a common sight in rural India, rows of bricks drying in the sun next to a basic kiln.

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On the way to Periyar, we stopped to take a closer look, and one of the young workers gave us a quick demonstration.

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First clay is gathered, and mixed to the right consistency.

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Then the clay is packed into wooden frames, four bricks to a frame.

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The name of the company who commissioned the bricks is stamped onto each brick…

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…and the bricks are left to dry.

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Once enough dry bricks have been prepared, the big kiln is fired up. This one consists of brick walls, surrounded by a thatched roof (which doubles as a cool place to sleep in summer in between firings). I’ve seen open firing pits too, and in some places, such as Rajasthan, they use tall conical chimneys to retain the heat.

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Make three hundred bricks a day, and you could earn the princely sum of 150 rupees. That’s approximately £2, or two thirds of a latte.

Madurai

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If I had any concerns about waking in time for the train, they were shattered at about 6am when the brass band started playing outside my window. There is a wedding in the hotel next door, and as we leave our own hotel a stream of guests are arriving, though there is no sign yet of the bride or groom. The bus drops us at a station about an hour away at Villapuram, where we board a 3AC sleeper coach for the five hour journey to Madurai. Nearly everyone sleeps, the windows are tinted so there is no chance for photos, and consequently it’s an uneventful journey.

20120318-133332.jpg A pause between raucous discordances

At Madurai we dodge the rickshaw wallahs and walk the ten minutes to the hotel, the Madurai Residency. A sign at the door announces that it is hosting Priya’s* puberty party this evening (I can’t think of anything I would have wanted less at that particular point in time!). I am greatly relieved to take delivery of a vat of boiling hot water at last. Which does, sadly, mean that I have an afternoon of laundry ahead of me. Oh the glamour…

Madurai is an ancient town, in which the first tourists were apparently the Greeks in the first century BC. This is our tour leader’s home town, and he is happy to show us around.
After a lightning quick orientation, we board tuktuks to visit his mother at their family home – all 12 of us have been invited for dinner, which is a real honour. Just as we arrive, there is one of India’s famous power cuts, but it barely makes a difference – we have delicious dhal, curry, and fresh chapattis, and some sweet halva, all seated in a circle. I think everyone is feeling very lucky to have had another fleeting glimpse of day-to-day family life. We’re all in high spirits on the return journey, and vote unanimously to take the local bus instead of tuktuks, squeezing on and doing our best not to fall out the open door until we get closer to our stop, where proximity to the exit is key if you want to get out before the new passengers force their way in.

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We all gatecrash Charles’s hotel room for drinks that evening, and spend most of the evening in hysterics watching old Tamil movies (Tollywood?), the highlight being a bizarre 60s cult space movie starring none other than Jayalalitha, the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in a costume that appears to have been made of tinfoil (for a more current photo see the poster of the venerable Minister in the rice shop, in my post on Ooty). Arnold Schwarzenegger should be very afraid…

Early the next morning we all receive a call from Charles, confirming the dress code for the day – long trousers and no low cut tops please. We are just around the corner from the magnificent Minakshi Temple, and after our last excursion he’s taking no chances that we might be refused entry.

The temple is a short walk from our breakfast stop, in a hotel down the road from our own. Turning the corner, the distinctive brightly-coloured tower over the entrance looms at the end of the street, which is blocked off to traffic. It is strange (but quite pleasant!) to be walking along an Indian road without fear of being deafened by horns or knocked over by a speeding rickshaw!

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Security is the tightest I have seen for any temple: after leaving our shoes we are screened and patted down by guards (there is a separate queue for women, attended by female guards behind a curtain, just like airport security here). One of the girls in front of me has a kindle, which takes some explaining – I don’t think they’ve seen one before – but it paves the way for mine and, by the time the member of our group who carries an epi-pen passes through, they barely bat an eyelid.

The complex inside the wall is vast. To our left is an ancient banyan tree, hung with brightly painted miniature cradles by childless women who want to conceive. Behind it the temple walls loom, painted in the red and white stripes that indicate a Saivite (i.e. Shiva) temple.

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We enter a hall in which a group of women are gathered. One is heavily pregnant, and the other women are placing glass bangles on her wrists – she will wear them until the baby is born, and they will make a sweet tinkling sound as she moves, which is supposed to be a pleasing sound to unborn ears.

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Through arcades of shops and stalks selling bangles, incense, bells and random plastic toys, we slowly make our way to the inner sanctum.

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The complex is crowded – today is clearly an auspicious day for a wedding, and we pass numerous couples shyly posing for photos near the water tank, the women with garlands of fragrant jasmine cascading down behind them.

20120318-134338.jpg Doesn’t bode well, does it…

Some families choose a simple temple wedding over the raucous hotel extravaganza we saw yesterday morning (rich families, apparently, can have the priest come to them). In a corner, the mother of one of the brides is stringing beads onto gold thread, weaving together a string which will be worn as part of the ceremony.

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A family walks past us, the father carrying a child of about 18 months, her eyes ringed heavily with kohl (so as not to attract the attention of malevolent spirits by being too cute) and her hair shaved close to the skull. She has just had her ears pierced, one of the first age-related ceremonies.

A posse of holy men dressed in orange appear – they’re happy to pose for photos, for a (considerable) price… Further inside, small ghee lamps are being lit and placed in front of statues. There is a particular carving on one pillar that is attracting a lot of attention, its body covered by green skirts. We are told it is, again, for women who want to conceive – apparently the carving beneath the skirt is quite something (see Michael Woods’s book on South India for a full description!).

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It would be easy to spend hours here, just watching the people going about their worship (and other business), but we have just enough time to see the hall of one thousand pillars, at the end of which stands the figure of Nataraja, Shiva, god of destruction, dancing the cosmic dance (and stomping out the dwarf of ignorance, according to one interpretation).

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We retreat from the temple, retrieve our shoes, and spend a few minutes admiring exquisite handmade rugs over a cup of spiced green tea in a nearby carpet emporium, before a (not so) quick lunch of chilly toast at the hotel, and then it’s time to bid farewell to Madurai.

*not her actual name

Auroville Bingo

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Today is one of those days where the journey is as integral as the destination. There is a drive of several hours to Pondicherry, the former French colony further down the East coast. Along the way we stop for chai. The staff are prepping for lunch, shelling huge mounds of prawns and cooking a huge vat of rice over an open fire in the dirt yard.

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Across the road a stack of clay pots is piled up in front of a couple of small huts. The potter comes out and chats with our guide for a few minutes, then beckons and heaves on a heavy stone wheel. He uses a stout wooden pole to get it spinning, then adds clay and in a few minutes has made a series of bowls, jugs and teacups for us to admire.

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His earlier work, some fired and some still drying in the sun, is stacked up to one side, including a stack of open terracotta stoves that remind me a bit of the “hobo stoves” I used to make from Milo tins to cook toast on in the garden as a child. Behind him, under a tree, the potter’s family are observing us, one girl of about twelve playing on a smartphone.

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There is one more scheduled stop before we arrive in Pondicherry – Auroville – and its inclusion has been the source of some controversy within the group. To lighten the mood and pass the time, the more cynical among us begin a game of Auroville Bingo (points are allocated for long matted hair, especially on Western guys, tie-dyed clothes, baggy hippie-pants and ageing hippies generally).

Auroville is a kind of alternative community, or in fact group of communities, established in the late sixties by a French woman known these days only as “the Mother”. At its heart is a giant sphere, the Matrimandir, which looks like a large metallic golf ball, a version of “futuristic” that was well out of date by the time it was completed in 2008 (after 37 years of construction). The basic founding principles, that the community find more sustainable ways of inhabiting the planet and that it be for all creeds and all nationalities, were almost before its time, but the way that this has manifested feels a bit odd and exclusive – one may view, but not enter, the Matrimandir, though one may certainly spend one’s money at the boutique or in the cafe (which serves delicious salads and pizza, amongst other things), and the short audiovisual presentation has a portentous semi-religious tone which raises my hackles from the start. On the other hand, there is a small but impressive display of renewable energy and sustainability projects in the next room.

There is not a lot of visible information about how the various projects work, or the day-to-day life within the various sub-communities, so there is little to counterbalance the feeling that it’s all a bit elitist – an impression heightened by the poverty immediately outside its gates. In a way I don’t think I was there long enough to form more than a superficial opinion – I can admire the basic principle, but the religious reverence accorded to “the Mother” is a bit creepy and, without more information, for a skeptic like me it’s hard not to dismiss this as an eccentric relic of a bygone era – but that’s the nature of group travel: I’m not on my own timetable, so I can’t take time to meet any of the people who actually live here and find out more. And besides, I’ve just spotted an old stoned white guy on a scooter with baggy tie-dyed purple trousers and dreads. Bingo!

On that note, I may not be in the most positive frame of mind when we finally hit Pondicherry. Our hotel is on a busy street that could be anywhere in India. My requests for boiling water are met with nods and inaction – though eventually a lukewarm bucket is brought to my door, the bearer standing there clearly expecting a tip. Better luck at the next hotel, maybe? The offending bag is placed in quarantine.

Before we are let loose on the town, we are taken to a local temple dedicated to Ganesh, Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, with a sad temple elephant swaying outside. Inside, there are a series of friezes around the walls, and a queue for the inner sanctum. We attract a few hisses and some angry words, which I get the distinct impression is because one of our number is wearing a very skimpy top and short shorts – not quite the covered knees and shoulders that etiquette requires – but she remains happily oblivious.

Leaving the temple, we walk to the French quarter of Pondy, which is quite a contrast to the rest of the town (though somehow smaller than expected). The streets are broad and uncluttered, and some of the buildings still have a little French style. There are cycle rickshaws everywhere, the first time I’ve seen them. We stop near a beautifully kept property with high walls, concealing a colourful garden full of flowers. This is the Sri Aurobindo ashram, founded in the 1920s. Sri Aurobindo was a nationalist-turned-guru, who eventually passed leadership of the ashram to the Mother, of Auroville fame. Inside there is near silence, as people sit in quiet contemplation in the garden around what looks to be Sri Aurobindo’s tomb.

20120317-085629.jpg Sri Aurobindo ashram

Leaving the ashram, a few of us turn towards the waterfront, passing a huge, heavily guarded building flying the red, white and blue of the French flag. The embassy seems to be all that is recognisable of the former colony, save for a branch of the Alliance Francaise and a couple of bakeries selling pain au chocolat. Sadly, the madeleine I order at Le Cafe on the promenade turns out to be just a slightly stale muffin which bears no resemblance to the French treat.

Along the promenade, locals and tourists stroll, to the sound of hawkers selling candy floss and seaside toys (though it’s a rocky promenade, not a beach, and the waves are crashing powerfully enough against those rocks to prevent so much as dipping a toe in the sea). There is a huge statue of Gandhi, garlanded with marigolds, beside which a staircase has been constructed to facilitate the addition of further garlands.

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Turning back towards town, we pass through a park, where the effects of the January cyclone is clearly visible, with uprooted tree trunks still lying across broken marble benches where they fell.

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It is a noisy, dusty walk of twenty five minutes or so along busy streets to find the hotel, stopping on the way at a stationer’s to buy boxes of pencils (there has been much discussion about what, if anything, is appropriate to give to children we may meet along the way, and there is a chance that we’ll visit a school at some point on the trip), and then to an “English wine shop” to buy a small thank-you present for our guide – these shops are usually to be found by looking for a queue of men and a shopfront covered in steel bars; judging by his reaction I suspect we may be the first women that the guy working in the shop has ever served.

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I’m sure there is more to Pondy than first meets the eye – the restaurant a few of us go to that evening (Satsanga) is lovely, set in a garden hung with coloured glass lamps, and the ashram was a surprisingly peaceful place – and as I will discover elsewhere in India, first impressions are not always reliable, and much depends on my own frame of mind. Worth maybe another day or two, perhaps.

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Mamallapuram rocks. Shame about the bugs.

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We don’t officially stop in Chennai, it’s just a stepping stone on the way to Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram (take your pick, same man different haircut). But we arrive on the train at the crack of dawn and, after a quick Indian-style breakfast at a diner that has all the ambience of Denny’s (but with the added bonus of a unisex bathroom swarming with mosquitoes), there is time for a short diversion. The little bus takes us through the city, which seems to be lined with political hoardings – mainly the chief minister and another fellow in her party with large thick dark glasses.

We cruise along Marine Drive, where the Indian Ocean is pounding against a white sand beach lined with fishermen and small shacks. Across the beach there is an ugly, dilapidated apartment block, built to rehouse some of the inhabitants of these dwellings, much to the disappointment (apparently) of the owners of the posh apartments directly behind it, who object to this alteration to their sea view.

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We park a little way along the beach and climb some steps towards a white church, the cathedral of St Thomas the apostle, whose remains are, apparently, entombed in a crypt below the altar. There is a small museum of relics and other artefacts, and downstairs is the tomb itself, which is approached through an anteroom with an alarmingly garish plaster representation of the moment of St Thomas’s martyrdom. The tomb itself is also topped with a robed mannequin of dubious vintage, giving the room the unfortunate air of a slightly dodgy provincial museum. The cathedral itself is much more impressive – the first time I have seen a statue of Jesus standing on a lotus flower, in the manner of other Indian deities.

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We return to the bus and continue on to Mamallapuram, along a coastal road littered with hotels, resorts (hotels with a driveway and a fence) and advertisements for amusement parks.

The hotel in Mamallapuram is my favourite so far – they even have a swimming pool! And a swimming pool attendant, complete with register, who ensures that one signs in, takes a token shower, and – after a blissful dip in the crystal clear pool – signs out again and leaves an appropriate comment in the pool’s visitors book. Really.

Mamallapuram is a touristy little town, known for its monolithic rock carvings. They’re on a much smaller scale than the ones at Ajanta and Ellora, but impressive all the same. Of particular note is the massive wall frieze known as Arjuna’s Penance, carved in amazing detail – the waterfall must look fantastic during the monsoon. And it’s hard to miss Krishna’s butterball, the huge boulder improbably balanced on the edge of the rock face. There’s also a small cave temple containing a statue of Brahma, no longer in use – the only active Brahma temple in India, I’m told, is the one in Pushkar, which I will see in a few weeks from now.

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20120317-001336.jpg Arjuna’s penance. Spot the cat doing yoga…

A few minutes away on the edge of the sea lies the ancient Shore Temple, its pillars and carvings eroded by the salt from the pounding tides and the occasional flood. Nearby there is a government shop selling crafts from throughout the region. I have been searching for a small figurine of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, and here I find an intricately carved wooden version. The initial price is astronomical, so I make my apologies and start to walk out. The salesman asks what I could pay, and I reluctantly name a price half that of what he had started with. A few minutes later he agrees, making me suspect I could have started even lower! I have a long tradition of buying completely inappropriate souvenirs when I’m in the middle of a long trip (somewhere in my parents’ garage in New Zealand lie the coffee cups that I carefully carried in my pack all the way home from Prague). At least the statue weighs only a few grams, though getting it back to London in one piece two months from now is going to be a challenge!

The only downside to Mamallapuram that I can see is the disproportionate number of super-persistent touts – in a small place it is even more noticeable, and definitely makes me think twice before I so much as glance at anything in the shops that I pass. There are the usual shops selling sarongs and trinkets, but also a number of stone-carving galleries and workshops. I don’t have time to make it down to the beach, except to see the shore temple, and I could stay a little longer here, if not for the touts. It would be good to have just a little more time to explore.

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We have dinner that night at a seafood place along the path to the beach. Before dinner, the day’s catch is presented to us for selection, and I settle for giant king prawns, which come with a fiery chilli sauce. After dinner I stop at the little tailor’s shop across the road from the hotel – some of the others are already sporting smart new salwar kameez for which they were measured on our arrival only a few hours before, and I’m hoping he might be able to make some new trousers to replace the pair I bought in Goa (which have not held up well to regular use). 900 rupees later my last-minute order is placed, the old trousers left with the tailor by way of pattern, and I’m in a rickshaw on the way to meet the others at a cafe which, Charles has promised, serves the most incredible chocolate brownies. I smile wryly when I realise he has directed us to the local branch of Cafe Coffee Day, but I have to admit that the brownies are pretty good.

We walk back from the cafe, ignoring the occasional seedy comment from the few Indian guys wandering past in the other direction. Back at the hotel, the tailor sees us arrive and hurries across the road – my new trousers are ready, and he has even managed to repair the ripped ones. Not bad for two hours’ notice.

I have managed to rig my mosquito net in the hotel room, and am sleepily updating my journal by the light of my headlamp, when I notice a little brown beetle has slipped under the net. Looking down, I notice another. Then another – until I realise with absolute horror that the bed is literally crawling with bedbugs – and judging by the state of them, I have been bitten already. I shake my roommate awake, leave her to gather up her things, and storm downstairs to reception, brandishing my pillow and its telltale little bloodstains as evidence. It takes a little convincing before the night manager realises that we are not, in fact, going to be happy to spend the night in the same room as the bugs. He acts as if he is doing us a huge favour – “upgrading” is mentioned. There’s no discernible difference that I can see between the rooms, but as long as the new one is clean, I don’t care. It takes a while to get back to sleep, and in the morning my worst fears are confirmed: I am covered in nasty red bites, and they are itching like crazy.

The problem with bedbugs is that they are really good at hiding, and they can survive without feeding for as much as a year. Consulting the oracle (i.e. Google), it seems the options are submersion in boiling water or prolonged exposure to direct sunlight. I have a spare vacuum-sealed plastic bag, so we add suffocation to the mix and tie the sealed bag to the roof of the bus for the morning’s journey to Pondicherry, hoping the next hotel can procure some boiling water as well. As we are leaving the hotel, we spy our mattresses and bedclothes being laid out in the sun on the roof of the hotel, and cleaners are scrubbing the room – nobody else’s room was infested, so hopefully it was an aberration and the next guests in that room won’t be bitten. Eew!!

Mysore

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It’s a wrench to leave the jungle retreat so soon for the bus ride to Mysore. Driving back through the border to Karnataka I am still looking for tigers (you never know, right?).

The jungle landscape soon gives way to open farmland. In one field, women are harvesting turmeric.

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We arrive in Mysore and check in to our hotel – KVC International. The street isn’t up to much, but it’s easily the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in so far, huge clean rooms with a TV and an ensuite (with hot water!), and even free wifi. But there’s no time for that – we are off to the palace!

Mysore Palace is a confection of a building set in huge grounds planted with palm trees. To go inside we must surrender our cameras, and leave our shoes in a locker. We are accompanied by a guide, Samir, who sounds like he has learned English from a member of the Russian mafia, and who cracks tragic Dad-jokes at every opportunity (to wit: when describing a goddess with 36 arms, he has himself in stitches because “my girlfriend has only two arms”. There will be mother-in-law jokes any second now, I’m sure of it). The palace itself is quite something (even if Samir is a little too impressed with a couple of paintings where the eyes of some of the animals follow you from one side of the room to the other – the Indian Mona Lisa, apparently. Actually, no…). There is a vast galleried ballroom with stained glass all the colours of peacock feathers, and a public audience gallery/throne room which is open to the elements. There is a solid silver howdah, and photos of the Maharajah atop an elephant in the midst of a parade. It is hard to believe that the current palace was only built in the early 20th century.

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It is nearly 4 o’clock, and, back in the bus, we wind our way up Chamundi Hill, on the edge of town. The bus shows every sign of having no brakes, which is fine on the way up (save for one or two near misses), but a little disconcerting when I remember that we also need to get down again. At the top of the hill lies Sri Chamundeswari temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga (whose mode of transport, incidentally, is a tiger).

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Leaving our shoes in the “clock room”, we have just enough time to enter the temple before it closes. As we squeeze past the gate I feel someone brush past me, then look up to my right to see a disgruntled-looking macaque staring back at me, before moving on to the next person in the queue – he had been busily inspecting the offerings brought in by each pilgrim, helping himself to the choicest morsels, and had registered his disgust at my empty hands by giving me a swift roundhouse kick as I passed.

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Inside the temple we make a swift circuit, and I attempt to dodge the priest dishing out blessings for a small “donation”. Outside, there is a young guy having his shiny new Royal Enfield blessed by a priest. He blesses a coconut, then sets it behind the back tyre for the proud owner to reverse over, which he does – oh the embarrassment if he’d tried and it hadn’t broken, with all of his friends (and twelve curious tourists) looking on!

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From the hilltop, the view of the sun setting is magnificent. As it sets, we descend the steps nearby, to see the large monolithic bull (Nandi) at the bottom – Durga is an incarnation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, and wherever there’s a connection to Shiva, there’s a bull. On the way we pass school kids on their way – surely home, at this hour? – and they delightedly try out the few phrases of English that seem to be the mainstay of English teachers throughout India: Hello, where are you from, what is your name? In taking the steps we’ve also neatly avoided finding out how the bus driver gets down the hill without any brakes!

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For dinner there is a treat in store – in the evening the street near our hotel comes alive with a line of tiny food stalls, and our guide has already scouted them out, so he knows exactly which ones are safe. We watch as piping hot savoury pancakes mixed with onion and corn are grilled on a hotplate, while little balls of deliciousness called ‘panniyarum’ (like takoyaki without the octopus) cook in a specially moulded tray.

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A little further down spiced, battered cauliflower is being fried in oil, and served with a twist of lime.

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A few of us decide to go on for a quiet drink, and our guide knows just the place. Though I arrival it does occur to me that he may not entirely have read the group right – it’s more a club than a pub, and we sweep past the bouncers and through a revolving door shaped like a coconut (as usual, am really not dressed for this place, but heigh ho!) into a dimly lit space with American cars sticking out from the walls in place of booths, where a few Indian guys are hanging around the edge of the dancefloor. I last about one round before the coughing kicks in – smoke free legislation never made it to India, it seems (though even if it had, there would probably be a way around it!). I’ve forgotten the last time I was somewhere where people smoke inside, but the combination of the smoke and my stupid cold are enough to set everything off, and I am forced to beat a hasty retreat. All party, all the time…

Mysore is famous for its silk, so the next morning there is a shopping expedition to a government emporium (mostly fixed price, but at least the quality is guaranteed), followed by a visit to the markets, but my wretched cold is still making its presence felt and I need some downtime – I’m really enjoying the group so far, but there is a definite sense of relief at having a few hours totally to myself.

By the afternoon I’m ready to play again, and we drive out to the Keshava Temple, an hour from Mysore at Somnath. On the way we pass more farmland, and stop to watch millet gleaners shaking the last valuable grains from the harvest.

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Keshava temple was once dedicated to Vishnu (in one of his nine incarnations), and the inner sanctum contains three statues, which our guide names as Krishna (by another name that I couldn’t pronounce let alone spell), Keshava and Janardhana. Two of the statues are original, the third, “stolen by the Britishers”, now lies somewhere in the British Museum.

20120315-163551.jpg Vishnu by any other name…

The temple itself is no longer active, but worth a visit for the ornate carvings – including a few rather racy ones that appear to have come straight from the kamasutra. It was built back in the mid-to-late 13th century by a general of King.

20120315-162929.jpg Just good friends.

Our guide, Ramakrishna, was a teacher in a former life, and seems determined that we grasp the basics of the Hindu pantheon. Each god or goddess has his/her specific symbols, a way for an illiterate public to know who they were worshipping, and Ramakrishna tests us at each statue we come to. Incidentally, if a statue has four arms or more, it’s probably a god – two arms, a mere human. Just in case you were wondering…!

20120315-163149.jpg Definitely a god.

As we’re leaving, a large posse of school girls in matching sari uniforms arrives, on a history trip. Their English teacher is travelling with them, and sends them over to practise (all together now, “hellowhereyoufromwhatsyourname?”).

That night we have dinner at the home of one of Intrepid’s drivers, Raju. The table for twelve of us occupies the entire living space – even if they are being remunerated well (and this being Intrepid I’m sure they are), it’s not a small inconvenience to have the whole of your home taken over by twelve strangers on a weekly basis. The meal is simple and so tasty – an incredible chicken biriani, aubergine curry for the non-meat eaters, and a plump gulab jamun to finish (my new favourite dessert in the world – a ball of batter deep fried in ghee, then soaked with syrup – what’s not to love?!).

20120315-163242.jpg Biriani deluxe

From Raju’s home it’s straight to the station to catch an overnight train to Chennai. It’s my third or fourth overnight train, but a first for most of the group. This time I get the upper bunk of the three, and immediately resolve to book that bunk for all of my solo trips – it’s more private, feels a bit safer looking down on the cabin, and best of all you can lie down whenever you want to, because nobody from the other two bunks is sitting on it. All of which make a difference when you’re a woman travelling alone! Though the “ladder” consists of two small rungs on one end of the bunk, and in 3AC the upper bunk is pretty high, so it pays to take care on descent…