Category Archives: India

Delhi, old and new

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Karol Bagh is situated roughly half way between the former British capital that is New Delhi, with its wide streets and Lutyens bungalows, and the Old Delhi of Shahjehanabad – the former Muslim capital founded by the Mughal emperor.

It is in Old Delhi that we start our tour, first catching a local bus outside the metro station. The conductor calls the destinations out the window at each stop, a fistful of rupee notes in his hand.

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The morning traffic includes a slew of cycle rickshaws and the occasional oxcart.

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We step down at the stop across the road from the Red Fort, impressive from the outside but apparently not as fine as the one in Agra, which we will see soon. Instead, our destination is the Jama Masjid, a huge mosque which was once occupied by a Sikh regiment after the so-called Indian Mutiny (or first war of independence, depending on your chosen historical perspective).

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Today it is full of tourists and, after leaving our shoes outside, the women in our group are required to don brightly coloured overgarments which cover us from top to toe – all of us have shoulders and knees covered, so I can only assume that the blanket policy of, erm, blankets is a combination of money-gathering and just generally making female tourists look ridiculous.

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We also need a token male with us if we are to climb to the top of the minaret, and luckily there is one guy in our group prepared to make the climb. The view from the top is fantastic, though curtailed slightly by the haze of pollution around the city.

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Below us on one side is the Red Fort. On the other, a warren of alleyways, the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, and it is into this maze that our tour leader takes us next, past rows of shops selling nothing but ribbons and trim for wedding clothes, another selling sweets (where we do stop to taste some of the peanut and sesame toffees) – he sets a swift pace though, so there is little chance to stop and take photographs.

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Emerging from the network of lanes, we find ourselves on a wide street, at one end of which is a large Sikh temple, the Sheeshganj gurdwara. Inside the complex, underneath the temple, we leave our shoes and don headscarves (the boys too this time, all heads must be covered, and scarves are provided for anyone who needs them). We walk through low jets of water to wash our feet, then ascend the main steps to the temple. Inside, three men are playing a drum and a harmonium, and half singing, half chanting readings from the Sikh holy book. We find a spare space on the carpet at the back and listen for a while. The atmosphere is peaceful and meditative.

Outside, we find the kitchen, where a turbaned Sikh is stirring a vast vat of halva.

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Further on, people are making chappatis and, in the hall beyond, about fifty people are seated on the floor in long lines while food is distributed. It is part of the Sikh philosophy that free meals be provided to anyone (of any creed or none) who needs or wants it – and not just the poor, as it is hoped that people who eat in the halls will donate what they can, either in cash or in time spent in preparation of the meals. It’s a pretty cool concept.

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Back on the street the traffic noise is a bit jarring. To get back to the hotel, we take the flash new metro, most of which was completed in time for the Commonwealth games in 2010. It’s the equal of any underground I’ve been in, and cleaner than most (certainly cheaper!). Security is high – every single bag is scanned and person searched as if at an airport. I can imagine riots breaking out if they tried to introduce a similar policy in London, but here it’s is just something else to build in extra time for. Entry is by a small plastic token with value loaded for the trip (like a miniature oyster), which is swiped on entry, and dropped into a slot on final exit. There are also one day tourist cards which are pretty good value (100R for one day, 250R for three, plus a refundable 50R deposit). The other advantage, given the famously gropey hands of certain Delhi males who ought to know better, is that the first car of each train is for women only (well, it says ladies, but I presume they’ll make an exception), and often less crowded than the other cars.

With the rest of the afternoon free, there is just time for the three musketeers (being the three solo travellers from the South Indian trip) to find an autorickshaw to take us to Humayun’s tomb, a kind of mini-Taj Mahal in red sandstone to the South near Hazrat Nizamuddin station. I don’t know if it’s our pronunciation but it takes a while to find a driver who knows where to go – in the end we get as far as Khan Market and ask for directions.

Our driver waits while we go inside. Humayun was the second great Mughal emperor (after Babur and before Akbar, in case you were wondering). After a life of dramatic battles and intrigue (he killed most of his brothers to secure the throne), his death was utterly mundane – he tripped on his robe while running downstairs, cracked his head and that was that. His tomb, however is quite something – a rare oasis of green parkland, with the red sandstone dome soaring above.

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One of the displays shows a picture of pre-British Delhi, with smaller domed cenotaphs dotted across the land.

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The tomb seems to be under constant renovation, and the site hosts regular training workshops in the use of ancient carving and building techniques, such as the elaborate stone grills, or jali-work, in place of windows. This is the sort of place to which you could bring a book and a picnic and spend a peaceful afternoon away from the noise of modern Delhi.

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Since we are in the neighbourhood, we make a quick stop at Khan Market, and immediately wish we had longer. There is a branch of Fab India here, and also a branch of Anokhi, which may just be even better than Fab India. There is also a camera shop which has a single precious 49mm UV filter for my camera – the original was smashed in a heartstopping incident in Periyar. There is nothing else for it – we’ll have to come back here to investigate properly when we return to Delhi.

That evening we return to Om Saravana Bhavan, a brilliant South Indian cafeteria just around the corner from the hotel, for dinner. I had asked our trip leader that morning for a cheaper alternative to the mediocre hotel breakfast buffet, and he directed me here. When I walked in at 8am, I was the only foreigner in the place, and smoke was billowing out the door as a priest performed some kind of ceremony that involved lighting a small wood fire on the bare marble floor. But once past the smoke, I was seated with courtesy and served a delicious masala dosa and South Indian coffee within minutes, for half the price I would have paid for toast and dry omelette in the hotel.

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We are just finishing up when everyone else from the group walks in to join us (news of good food travels fast) and I’m already looking forward to coming back to Delhi in a couple of weeks time for a return visit.

At home in the Kerala Backwaters

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No trip around South India could be complete without a trip to the backwaters of Kerala, where the rivers meet the sea. To get there, first we face another long drive through the tea plantations (oh the hardship!).

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Along the way we stop at a rubber plantation, where sticky white latex is slowly dripping into coconut shell-shaped plastic cups (once they would have been actual coconut shells) from small cuts in the bark of the rubber trees.

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There is a refreshment stop at a roadside cafe which specialises in deep fried battered bananas stuffed with cashews, spices and raisins, and balls of date halva wrapped in banana leaves, as well as packs of bamboo rice, which is produced only once every 24 years and rumoured to cure just about everything, including impotence.

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We stop briefly too at a Christian church sitting atop a small hill in the midst of tea plantations – the view is lovely, but more importantly I finally manage to convince the rest of the crew that our trip will be incomplete without a human pyramid – go the victory arm!

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Eventually we turn off the main road and down a rough unsealed road to a rather unsalubrious-looking settlement next to the river. There is time for a quick toilet stop (5 rupees and hold your nose, girls!), then we board our craft for a one hour journey down the river. A row of plastic garden chairs has been placed on the upper deck, and the breeze as we cruise along is welcome – it’s becoming increasingly humid.

All along the riverbank are cottages with steps leading down to the water. Women are washing clothes in the river, and a canoe pulls up to one set of steps to offload its cargo – a large brown cow, which miraculously disembarks without swamping the boat.

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It’s like being on a main highway – in fact there are road signs along the riverbank, and shelters like bus stops for shelter while waiting to hail a passing ferryboat. I’m told there could be as many as 300 islands in the backwaters, many on reclaimed land. We see men at work strengthening or rebuilding the stone walls along the riverbank – with global warming, rising tides and monsoon floods are having a serious effect here, though this section ends in a dam which prevents the sea and fresh water mingling as they once did (good for irrigation, not so good at flushing out the waterweed which is now becoming a real problem along the river).

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Behind the walls lie rice paddies growing the red Kerala rice. Along the river, that waterweed – water hyacinth, I think? – grows in large clumps, providing floating platforms for kingfishers and cranes resting from diving for fish.

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We turn into a smaller canal, and come to a halt at a small jetty in front of a farmhouse, the trees in front of the house leaning down to graze the water. We are staying in homestays tonight, three different houses, one of which is across the far side of the river.

For those on this bank, there is lunch at a communal table, then one of the sons, Wishal (a former Intrepid guide who now works for a local charity) takes us for a walk along the riverbank and through the small village, showing us the different varieties of coconut palm and describing the irrigation methods used by local farmers to grow rice by immersion.

A large canoe-like boat is waiting to take us back to the homestay as the sun sets, punted with a long bamboo pole.

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Dinner is served, a variety of curries (including my favourite pineapple), dhal and Kerala rice. Then the lights are dimmed, and a cake full of candles is brought in – one of the group turns 66 today! “Happy birthday” is followed by calls for another song, and the birthday boy proves to be an excellent singer as well – then it’s just like being in a tiny country pub in Ireland, as songs are called for from each of the countries represented – though I do feel that our host was copping out just a little bit by choosing the Indian national anthem.

The next morning I am awake at six, and quietly let myself out the gate to go for a walk. The sky is just starting to lighten. The air is still and quiet save for the birds, until the sun begins to rise, and the call and response of a Catholic mass can be heard from a church across the rice paddies. Then the mosque across the water starts, and the bells of the local temple.

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Back at the house there is time to sit on the jetty and watch the fish jumping (I’ll be breaking into song any minute now…), as the rest of the house’s occupants wake up and get ready for the day.

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The boat is back to collect us for the trip to Alleppey, the main centre in the backwaters, where seemingly hundreds of traditional reed houseboats are docked awaiting passengers. Some of these boats are nothing less than floating hotels, complete with chefs, aircon, even a swimming pool on the more outrageously expensive boats, so that there is nothing left to do but sit back and watch the world go by. We say goodbye to one couple here, who are about to do exactly that on their very own houseboat.

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For the rest of us, there is a short wait at the local bus station before the crazy scramble, bags and all, to find a place on the local bus to Ernakulam. The bus is full, three to a seat, and the windows are mercifully barred rather than enclosed by glass – the driver is a frustrated rally car driver, judging by his pace, so there is quite a breeze as we make our way back to Fort Kochi and the final night of the South Indian trip.

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First, take your coconut…

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Learning how to cook some of the delicious South Indian food that I have encountered here was high on my wish-list for this trip, so I jumped at the chance to attend a cooking class in Periyar. In the end only four of us opted to take the class, which turns out to be just as well, as our host has sneakily added an additional four people, who are waiting for us when we arrive at the top of the steep, narrow path to a small outdoor cafe, in the front yard of our host’s family home.

Our host can only be described as the Indian, teetotal version of Keith Floyd. He certainly has the larger-than-life demeanour required of a TV chef, utterly wasted in his day-job as a rickshaw driver.

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The living room of the family home has been cleared to make way for a large table, on which gas burners sit ready for use. But as any cook knows, the first item on the agenda is always prep. Outside we take over the cafe tables and are set to work chopping, peeling and slicing red onions, garlic, beans and potatoes.

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The fundamental ingredient in South Indian cooking is the coconut. If there isn’t coconut milk or chopped coconut, then there’s a high chance your meal will have been cooked in coconut oil. The chef’s mother is on hand to show us how to grate a coconut the old fashioned way, sitting on a wooden stool to which a lethal-looking star of metal has been bolted at one end, and running the halved coconut over the blade to produce the familiar stringy white pulp. To make coconut milk, this pulp is wrung out by hand into water until the water thickens and turns white.

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We are shown how to make several local curries (ideally the class would have been more hands-on, but there are too many of us and not enough cooking space). The basic method seems to be as follows:

1. Make sure all of the ingredients are sitting in front of you, measured and prepped, ready to throw into the pan.
2. Heat 1-2 T coconut oil.
3. Add black mustard seeds, cook for a few seconds until they start to pop.
4. Throw in a handful of curry leaves (they must be fresh, god only knows where I’m going to find them in London, anybody know?). The oil will fizz and bubble.
5. Add the main ingredients, meat/fish if applicable, cook through for a few minutes.
6. Throw in your spices or spice paste, and coconut milk if required, for a few more minutes then serve.

A standard mortar and pestle would do to make the spice paste, but our host (or, to be fair, his mother) relies on even more traditional methods. Outside the house sits a huge heavy stone which is grooved in the centre from decades of use. In the groove rests a stone rolling pin of sorts. The necessary spices are placed in the centre with freshly grated coconut, and ground together with the rolling pin to make the paste. For pineapple curry, we combined freshly grated coconut with garlic, a red chilli, onion, salt, turmeric and cumin. It’s slow and laborious when I try, but his mother makes quick work of it. A blender would be faster still, but where’s the romance in that? Besides, like a seasoned wok, I’d like to think the stone somehow added to the flavour.

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To accompany our various curry dishes, there is fresh basmati rice (bigger and longer than the exported varieties), and we have a chance to make our own roti to accompany the dish. First the dough – a well is made in the flour and the wet ingredients mixed directly on the marble bench top. The dough rests for a while, then we each practice breaking off small pieces to knead, roll, stretch and shape into the flat round pancake shape which is fried on a flat griddle, then (while still hot) clapped between your hands to create the distinctive layered effect (and brushed with ghee if desired).

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At last it is time to sit down and try our creations (and those created for us), at the long table in the yard of the cafe. The vegetarian dishes are delicious (though sadly, a little cold by the time we eat – perhaps time was spent on one dish too many?), but the chicken drumsticks which look deliciously charred, and which have been slowly roasting over coals in a sunken pit since our arrival, prove to be red raw in the centre and are hastily spat out.

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It would have been nice to stay and chat with the other attendees, who are in the midst of their own journeys and have been to some interesting places (one girl has been to the ashram of the Hugging Mother, where devotees queue for hours for a hug from their guru), but there is another early start tomorrow – in any case it’s after ten by the time we find our way back down the path to the waiting rickshaws. It has been a fascinating experience, and with a few tweaks (reheating the veg food for the meal, a smaller class, either cooking the chicken or leaving it out), it could be a truly excellent cooking class – our hosts have given us a great introduction to South Indian food, leaving me keen to learn more. When we are leaving the next day, we stop briefly at the bottom of the path to the cafe again, and someone comes down with a sheet where they have written some of the recipes for us – I don’t think I am giving away any trade secrets by sharing this one….

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….or the paratha recipe. I shall leave the interpretation of the diagrams to your imagination.

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Periyar – spice garden of India

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The most exciting thing about starting our journey to Periyar is that it is on a small private mini-bus and not the crowded public version. As the South India leg of the trip draws to a close, everyone seems to be feeling a bit worn out, and when it is suggested that for an extra five pounds each we could club together and hire our own transport, there is a unanimous vote in favour.

The long drive is broken by a few informal stops along the way, as something catches someone’s eye or our tour leader thinks we might be interested, but it is a long, hot journey.

As the evening draws near we begin to climb into the hills, and the landscape becomes verdant and more jungle-like, until at last we draw to a halt outside a house almost overgrown with garden. A spice garden, in fact, owned by the inimitable Abraham (who has some not insignificant growth of his own – see picture below) and his family (his father, aged ninety, has only recently stopped climbing the coconut palms on the property). With his quick sense of humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture, it’s not surprising that Abraham was chosen to appear on the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Gardens with Monty Don, a fact of which he is understandably proud.

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The garden itself is crammed into a single hectare, overflowing with every kind of spice and plenty of other surprises – including a giant lemon tree with fruit the size of a rugby ball, as well as papaya, cacao, coffee, and several varieties of chilli, which spark the boys’ competitive spirit: birds eye chillies are dispatched in quick succession, though only our beloved leader can be convinced (coerced) to try what I think is a scotch bonnet. He is absent for the rest of the tour, bathing his tongue alternately with sugar and yogurt and curled in the foetal position on Abraham’s sofa.

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We cannot see the entire garden, as it is growing dark and it is not unknown to find sloth bears or even the occasional tiger lurking at the end of it (not just a scare tactic – only a couple of years ago one of his workers was attacked by a bear here). Instead, Abraham’s wife has prepared a feast for us, eaten in traditional style on banana leaves, including delicious fat reddish grains of Kerala rice (apparently unobtainable outside of India, though I’m determined to try).

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At last we arrive at our hotel, a row of two-storied wooden chalets on the edge of Periyar village. Hot water is only available for certain hours each day, but other than that very slight inconvenience it is lovely. My room has a decent-sized balcony, and my roommate and I promptly lower the tone of the neighbourhood by decorating it with fresh laundry.

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The next morning we rise early for a visit to Periyar wildlife sanctuary. This is a rare sanctuary in that it is possible to walk, accompanied by guides, around certain parts of the park. Walking down the long driveway through the forest to the guides’ hut, we are accompanied by the occasional curious langur. On arrival we are issued with sock-like canvas gaiters, for the avoidance of leeches (I have come prepared with sachets of salt, just in case, and another girl has teatree oil, which apparently has the same effect).

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The first challenge is to cross the man-made lake on the edge of the park. The lake is calm and the air is still, save for a pied kingfisher which patrols the edges, occasionally pausing mid-air and plunging dramatically into the water. To cross, there is a ferry of sorts: a raft constructed of bamboo poles, with an extra pole crosswise at each end which serves as a seat. The guides pull us across by way of a rope, using another long pole for guidance. Embarking and disembarking is an exercise in careful balance!

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It is the dry season and the lake is low, which ought in theory to improve our chances of seeing elephants on our walk, but we have started late, well after dawn, and despite our guide’s efforts to get us through the park at maximum speed (which is no small challenge for the septuagenarian in our group), the animals are hiding.

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We see elephant footprints, elephant poo, even elephant bones (from a fight to the death between an older male and his young challenger, unsuccessfully for the challenger apparently). But no elephants. It is, however, a lovely walk, with just enough challenge to keep it interesting (a bridge over a small river made only of four bamboo poles, for example), and the occasional langur for variety.

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We return to the hotel for breakfast, and then there is the chance to try an Ayurvedic massage, a Kerala speciality. My therapist, Celia, trained for a year as an Ayurvedic nurse and has been practising now for nine. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between Ayurvedic massage and the regular variety, except that the strategic use of towels to preserve a modicum of modesty doesn’t feature, and the oil has the distinct scent of camphor – though whether for the benefit of my cold or for Celia’s, it’s hard to say. Other than that, it is relaxing and soporific. The treatment finishes with a steam bath, which turns out to be the slightly Victorian apparatus in the corner: a wooden cabinet in which one sits on a small stool, head poking out from a hole in the top, while steam is pumped inside. It’s not an unpleasant experience, though being dried from top to toe by the therapist at the end, in the manner of a small child at bathtime, is a bit much.

20120324-124029.jpg The lovely Celia

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After a relaxing afternoon, during which I forget entirely to buy any spices, I finally have a chance to see a demonstration of Kalaripayattu, the Keralan martial art that I had read about in the Dutch Palace in Fort Kochi. For a mere 100 rupees, we file into the gallery around the dirt arena.

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To the beat of drums (which turn out to be canned, causing some unintentional comedy during the performance), the performers enter the arena and bow their heads at the shrine at the far end. This obeisance is repeated at the beginning and end of each demonstration, and the religious element appears to be an inextricable part of the art itself.

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There are a series of moves, progressively more daring, and various weapons are introduced, from wooden staves to curled flexible swords unfurled with a flourish. For the finale, hoops wound with rags and doused in something flammable are set alight and held aloft, as members of the troupe somersault through them.

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Afterwards, the audience is invited to join the performers in the arena, to pose for pictures with the weapons. I’m playing paparazzi with multiple cameras when our trip leader rushes in – there’s no time to lose: we have a cooking class to get to!

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!

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.

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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.

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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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