Tag Archives: India

It’s all in the eyes


It’s nearly dark when we reach the entrance of the Kerala Kathakali centre near Santa Cruz Basilica. I buy banana chips fried in coconut oil from an old woman sitting by the door, and we file in to find our seats. On the small stage, three men in sarongs are carefully applying thick makeup with the aid of tiny wooden mirrors.



A man in white is lighting oil lamps around the edge of the stage. He carefully stamps intricate designs along the aisle with white powder. We tourists pull our cameras out, try to reach our seats without dislodging the designs. There is an audible groan from the (mostly foreign) crowd when one man stomps right through them, oblivious.


The man in white takes the stage, and two men line up stage right, strapping drums around their waists and beginning a gentle rhythm. The man in white begins to chant, then breaks into halting English to welcome us, and to introduce the evening’s performance.

Kathakali is a highly stylised form of dance that dates back to around the 17th century. While there is occasionally movement that is recognisable as dancing, the real art lies in the finely nuanced expressions of the performers, and the series of hand movements known as mudras. Before the performance starts, an actor is summoned to demonstrate first the eye movements, and then the mudras. His eyes are bloodshot red, an effect achieved by putting a particular kind of seed into his eyes for several minutes. My eyes squint shut in sympathy.


One of the girls in our group is a dancer, and has taken lessons in classical Indian dance while she is here in India. She reports spending the entire first lesson practising moving her eyes in a complete circle, from right to left and then back again. After an hour she had yet to meet her teacher’s demanding standards – but then, it can take 10 years to master this form of dance, so I imagine it must take at least a year of that to perfect a good eye-roll!

After the eyes come the hand gestures. Some of these prove to be less subtle than I had anticipated – there are multiple ways of saying “come here”, from a suggestive raise of the eyebrows to an emphatic pointing gesture accompanied by a stamping foot! The gestures become increasingly elaborate. My favourite (and one which two members of our group have developed into a superb and slightly risqué party piece) is said to represent the bee landing on a lotus flower.

At last it is time for the performance proper. Two uninterested-looking pot-bellied men in sarongs enter, and turn out to be the official curtain raisers – they hoist a rainbow coloured quilt between them, and for the first ten minute or so all of the action appears to be happening behind it. The man in white turns out to be the singer, alternately chanting, singing, and providing short explanations in English.


As seems to be the way in South India (and maybe the North too, for all I know), the gods are ever-present and each performer conducts a small ritual when entering the stage, before bowing to each of the singer and the musicians. The story is an excerpt from a longer play – in the days when villagers would travel huge distances for religious festivals, the performances would last all night, and would be attended in lieu of finding accommodation. While that must be quite a spectacle on the rare occasions that a full play is performed, I’m a little relieved that we are only being treated to an excerpt. It’s fascinating, but the more subtle details are lost on me, though the ritual-like aspects remind me of Japanese kabuki on a smaller scale.

20120304-184110.jpg The villain

I can tell you that the plot revolved around the anti-hero (indicated by a bright green face marked with red, and an elaborate skirted costume) attempting to abduct a beautiful lady (played to hammy effect by a man with bright yellow makeup, in stark contrast to his dark brown hands), who escapes and returns to her husband with the ruse that she will meet the bad guy later.

20120304-184149.jpg Continuity fail

The husband hatches a plot for revenge, lying in wait under his wife’s robe. When the evil-doer appears and tries it on, the husband leaps up and slays him. There is no sign of a lotus, let alone a bee flying anywhere near it, but this in no way reduces the campness of the evening.

20120304-184323.jpg Revenge!

The performance lasts an hour and a half, plus makeup time. The cost was approximately 250INR. It’s a glimpse at a unique part of South Indian culture which, while it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, is certainly worth seeing at least once.

Intrepid Kochi


After two weeks of travelling entirely at my own pace I have mixed feelings about joining up with a group, so I’m relieved to be allotted my own room for the first night at Kaleeveedu Lodge. The lodge has about 8 rooms, including the sleepout that I’m in, each with its own bathroom, and is surrounded by lawns studded with an eccentric assortment of garden ornaments, a huge mango tree that is beginning to bear small green fruit, and a pond where a couple of white ducks are doing their best to swim in the two inches of mosquito larvae-laden puddle at the bottom. The rooms are clean and tidy, there are mosquito screens, the hot water works and there is actual toilet paper – what more could a girl ask for. I’ve been on a few trips with Intrepid Travel, but this is the first time I’ve come across accommodation that is run directly by Intrepid itself. It might even be the only one, but with new trips starting and finishing weekly in Fort Kochi, and the relatively low cost of a lease, it makes sense to have a permanent base. It also means that I can cull a few more items from my pack and leave them safely in storage for the next two weeks – I swear I have a good reason for everything I have brought with me, and it’s all going to be useful – but there MUST be a way to travel with less. The sooner someone comes up with a common charger for all of my electronic devices (without all the different fiddly cords and connections), the better.

The trip kicks off with a meeting at 6p.m. sharp. We are a full complement of twelve, from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, the UK and even a token American, all the way from Boston. The age range is from early twenties to early seventies, with just two couples in the group. It’s going to be interesting to see how we all get along! Our guide is the delightful Charles, a Madurai native (we’re going to be visiting his home town in a few days) with a keen sense of humour, a love of food and a genuine pride in showing us around “his India”.

We head out for dinner at a tourist dive (which has the single advantage that it also serves beer, not as easy to track down as you might think), then it’s back to the lodge for more beer and a bottle of the local rum (which, I seem to recall, was actually pretty good), and a surprise birthday cake for one member of the group. It’s fair to say that some of us are looking a little sleepy the next morning at breakfast.

The day starts with a walking tour of Fort Kochi, retracing my footsteps from yesterday. At the fish market, a huge mess of eels is being packaged into crates and covered in ice for shipping.


We pass the local trade union office and arrive at the ferry terminal, where Charles has a word with the crew and we are first to board the old wooden ferry, for a sea-level view of the city.

20120304-182013.jpg Workers of the world…

Men in wooden canoes piled with fishing nets skim past, narrowly avoiding larger vessels (even a huge, slightly decrepit-looking cruise liner). In the distance we can see the tower blocks of Ernakulam, but after a brief stop the ferry crosses back to Fort and we follow the stream of old grandpa bicycles off the ferry at Mattancherry, to visit the “Dutch” palace.


No photos are allowed inside the palace, ostensibly to protect the vegetable dyes used in the ancient wall murals (other places just forbid flash photography, but maybe the temptation to flick on the flash has proved too much for some, so a complete photography ban has been imposed). The murals are impressive though, depicting mostly religious scenes – Krishna is a favourite subject.

20120304-182302.jpg Entry to the Dutch Palace

The rest of the palace is old, wooden and dark, with some fairly staid exhibits, but the history of the local aristocracy is an interesting one, quite different to the Northern states – and to the rest of India, as far as I can tell – in that the line of inheritance is matrilineal, so that the mother of the ruler becomes hugely important. There are a series of black and white portraits of the former royal family in both Western and traditional dress, including some slightly spooky baby photos.

One room is full of weapons – it turns out there is also a traditional form of martial art unique to Kerala, known as kalaripayattu. I had been laughing a couple of days earlier at a letterbox nameplate under the name “Panicker”, but apparently a kalari panicker is just someone who teaches kalaripayattu. It would be good to see kalaripayattu in action before I leave Kerala, though some of the weapons look pretty fierce.

When I emerge from the palace, there is a small scrum of people around the American member of the group. He’s brought a small cache of family photos with him, which are proving to be a great hit. Note to self for next time…

We jump into rickshaws for the short journey back as far as Bastion Street, and find a table at the back of the garden in Kashi Art Cafe. Set in a quiet lane, the cafe is reached through a quirky art gallery, and serves espresso made in stovetop pots, fresh salads washed in filtered water (I have been dreaming about salads for at least a week now), and homemade chocolate cake to die for. Heaven.

The rest of the afternoon is free, and I’m determined to track down a 3G sim for my iPad before we leave. I tried yesterday, but forgot to take a passport photo and a copy of my Indian visa. This time I have all of the necessary paperwork, but I don’t know how to activate the sim, and my iPad is stowed safely at the lodge. The thought of walking all the way to the lodge and back is too much, but the boy behind the counter is horrified that I would consider paying as much as 50 rupees for an autorickshaw, and volunteers the use of a friend’s motorbike. After extracting a promise to drive carefully, I am treated to my first ever ride on the back of a bike (though I draw the line at riding sidesaddle). Even at slow speeds (the driver is true to his word) I can see how this could become addictive, and it’s almost worth it just for the look of surprise on the face of the lodge manager when we pull in!

At long last the sim is activated (pretty sure they just wanted an excuse to play with the iPad…), and I head back to meet the rest of the group at the lodge. On the way, I pass a community hall with colourful banners outside – it’s an exhibition by the Handmade Collective, a non-profit organisation providing support to artisan craftspeople throughout India. Stalls have been set up around the edge of the hall, and in the garden cafe behind, selling clothing, toys, paintings, handmade paper and homemade herbal remedies. I buy a handprinted dress marked at 700INR from a trio who spent 30 hours on a train from North India to get to Fort Kochi for this three day event. More expensive than the local tourist markets, but at least a little closer to a fair price. In the next room a woman is selling scarves and saris made from Ahimsa silk. Ahimsa is the principle of non-violence, and the weavers are careful to leave enough silk on each cocoon so that the silkworm inside is unharmed. It is nearly the end of the final day, so she has dropped her prices and gives me a further discount on a block-printed cotton salwar kameez set. Clearly I don’t look like I know what to do with it, so she writes careful instructions on each piece for delivery to the tailor, labelling the salwar, kameez and dupatta fabric in case I mix them up.

20120304-182543.jpg Ahimsa silk

Walking back across the park, I dodge a women’s softball team mid-practice. Marquees are being erected for the Colonial hockey tournament the next day. In the distance I can hear drumming, and two streets away I stumble across a small stage with rows of chairs set up in the middle of a large park. A group of twenty men in sarongs are playing for an audience of three or four tourists and a couple of children, so I perch on a seat in the back row for a while to listen.


This evening’s programme includes a kathakali performance at a neighbourhood theatre, and one last dinner at the fabulous Oceanus (I don’t know what goes into a Syrian Catholic Fish Curry, apart from the obvious, but I can report that it is spicy and delicious). Tomorrow there is an early start tomorrow as we head for the hills of Ooty.

20120304-182702.jpg Syrian Catholic Curry and “pregnant pancakes” (aka appam). No connection.

Ajanta, at last


The next day is Tuesday, and Ajanta is open to the public again. It’s a little more than rickshaw-distance, at 100km from Aurangabad, but (surprise surprise) Aman knows a guy with a car, so for INR1850 Alizé and I are collected to be collected from our respective hotels at 8:30am to begin the journey.

I’d had a useful discussion with the waiter in the hotel cafe at breakfast the day before about transport options and timing and so on, and he’d been teasing me for going with the safe breakfast option of a masala omelette (omelette with green chillies and red peppers). I’d promised to try the Indian breakfast the next day so, with a wide smile, this morning he serves up a large plate of poha, pre-cooked, pounded rice that has been reheated and mixed with spices and roasted peanuts – flavoursome but mild enough not to shock my western palate too early in the morning.

Breakfast over, I have a brief “discussion” with the young kid on reception who is unwilling to let me go without paying for my room, despite my assurance that I’ve paid in advance. We compromise: I leave my luggage hostage and promise to return after Ajanta if he will let me use a shower when I come back, and I call on the ever-helpful Aaliyah at India Someday, who promises to have the matter sorted by the time I return – which she does. They have sometimes been slow to respond prior to the trip, but since my arrival in India we have been in regular contact and nothing is too much trouble. As a trip booking service they are well worth the small fee for their in-country support. Here endeth the endorsement.

There is no sign of Aman this morning, but he has sent his cousin (brother, colleague, partner in crime – who knows!), a man called Samir. His English is not as good as Aman’s, but he knows this route well and points out sights along the way.


It is the first time that I have seen cotton fields, and Samir stops the car so that we can take a closer look. Two young boys, maybe 12 years old at most, come running up, eager to show us the flowers on the cotton plants, and some tiny buds on the mango tree nearby (doomed never to make it into mangoes since, in their enthusiasm, they pull out a small scythe and cut them from the tree to present to us). The boys ham it up for the camera, pretending to attack each other with the little scythes, like boys of their age anywhere, except that these two are field workers, and will go back to picking cotton when we are gone.


There are other workers in the nearby fields, cotton, corn, wheat and sugarcane, and further along we see makeshift tents, some with rope and tarpaulin, others using sticks and cornstalks. They are the camps of itinerant workers, who travel from farm to farm and camp in the fields where they work. Later in the day we pass such a group in a train of rickety wooden ox-carts. The animals hauling the carts seem immune to the faster traffic rushing close by them.

About 20km before Ajanta we stop at a roadside cafe for chai and pakoras (or coke for me, I still can’t be dealing with that milky tea). Our Nepalese friends from the day before are at the next table, and we nod and smile in recognition. Our driver Samir introduces us to a couple of friends of his, one who runs a small Indian restaurant in Frankfurt but travels back to India for the winter months, and another, who calls himself Jack, and says he is a businessman, with a small shop at the shopping complex at Ajanta.

We talk about the caves, and Jack mentions the alternative entrance – would we like to go that way? He would be happy to be our guide (you can see what’s coming here, right?)….

As it happens, the alternative route is exactly the one I was hoping to take. Ajanta means ‘forgotten’ or ‘lost’ and, after they were abandoned by the Buddhist monks who built them, the caves were indeed forgotten for centuries, until a group of Englishmen happened to be out hunting for tigers one day, and spotted the caves from a nearby ridge. They alerted the local Nawab, and the caves eventually became a tourist attraction – right down to the recently-built government shopping complex at the main entrance, a short bus ride from the caves themselves, which, Jack tells us, has been funded by the Japanese.

The original point where John Smith rediscovered the caves is one of only a couple of viewpoints where the entire horse-shoe of the caves can be seen, and it’s a steep climb up from the caves themselves. Instead, we take a narrow country road through a poor village (in the midst of which, bizarrely, is a tin fairground carousel), and Samir drops us at the top of the hill, at the official lookout point which marks the place of discovery.

Jack leads us down the side of the cliff along a narrow path. We veer off the path to see a waterfall – or what would be a truly impressive waterfall post-monsoon, if any of the seven descending pools carved out of the stone had enough water to overflow. This is a popular (but dangerous) swimming spot for the locals. Just as we are about to return to the path, there is movement under a nearby cactus, and a family of monkeys emerge, glance at us scathingly, and move on.


At the entry to the caves below, Jack offers to wait for us – we assure him that won’t be necessary. We have agreed to visit his shop after we leave the caves, warning him in advance that we have no money (yep, I saw it coming too, but I’m fairly confident in my ability to stick to window shopping, and I’m quietly enjoying watching the Great Indian Scam attempt to unfold – it’s all part of the experience!). On the way down the cliff path he has told us all about the years he spent in Goa, and his English girlfriend of two years, who returned to Manchester and won’t take his calls. He blames her mother, who clearly didn’t like him. I suspect the discovery that he has a wife and children may have been more of a clincher. We make sympathetic noises and then change the subject.

There is a short, steep ascent from the ticket gate to the caves, and a few portly tourists are availing themselves of the chair wallahs, who carry them up the slope on a chair slung between two poles. They seem bemused that we’d prefer to walk. Perhaps then we would like to sit for just a moment, for a photo? For an appropriately small fee, of course…


At last we reach the first cave. The Ajanta caves are entirely Buddhist, and the main difference between these and their counterparts in Ellora is the elaborate cave paintings that have been preserved here. After yesterday I am determined to hire a guide so that I understand a little better what I am looking at. He takes us to 8 of the 32 caves (a number are closed for restoration, others have very little inside, are identical to the others, or are shallow enough to be seen from the main path without further explanation) – we can wander through the rest at our leisure.

The detail of the paintings is amazing (the guide has a superpowered torch that puts my little headlamp to shame), and the clothing, jewellery and tools depicted give an insight into Indian society at the time.


Our guide shows us a painting of a woman doctor, attending to a queen, and a depiction of a princess who is clearly pregnant. There are princes and dancers, musicians and fishermen. And did you know that rugby socks are an Indian invention?*


The rest of the caves contain sculptures, including a giant reclining Buddha, and a cathedral with arched beams carved from the stone. The stone is volcanic, and in one cave the original ceiling has fallen away, revealing the frozen lava flow above. I’m again amazed that all of this has been accomplished with the use of hand tools – it’s not surprising that it took hundreds of years to complete, but to have created all of this only to abandon it again (our guide speculates that the occupants moved north with the decline of Buddhism in India – which may go to explain the Nepalese pilgrims).

We at last emerge and pay our 12 rupees for the air conditioned bus to take us the 15 minute drive to the main exit, where our driver is waiting (well worth the extra 5 rupees over the non-aircon version). And sure enough there is Jack, with his shop, which turns out to be full of crystals and sculptures of Buddha – he is only mildly offended when I suggest they have been imported from China. In a fit of generosity I pay a third of the original asking price for a tiny basalt carved Buddha, which I would likely have bought from another shop anyway – it’s easy enough to refuse anything else, it simply won’t fit in my pack! Most effective shopping deterrent ever.


Samir has one last attempt at the hard sell – this area is famous for its silk and cotton weaving (himroo and paithan), would we like to see a museum? The museum becomes a factory, and then a showroom, and ultimately turns out to be a shop, run by a fellow who looks an awful lot like Samir. We profess our complete disinterest, but he is very keen for us to go in – “just looking is ok”. So we just look, and 2 minutes later are back in the car again, much to Samir’s surprise – there are no more attempts at further stops!

On reaching the hotel, we decide to have dinner together before I catch my train. The hotel restaurant is closed, and directs us instead to an “Italian” place down the road, but before we leave Samir runs up and asks us to wait, as Aman is on his way. We had arranged for him to drop me at the station a little later on, so we can’t work out why Samir is so insistent, until Aman finally pulls up – in his Sunday finest, and riding a shiny Royal Enfield motorbike. Classic. It seems rude not to, so we invite him to join us for dinner (an odd Indian version of Italian, with extra spice, and a whole separate “Chinese” menu which includes gyoza) and Alizé is delighted when he agrees to drop her back to her hotel on the back of the bike (and promptly decides to spend her remaining day in Aurangabad sightseeing by motorbike).

Aman returns with his rickshaw to drop me at the station for my first overnight train journey. But you’ve heard about that already (see my tired rant a couple of posts back).

So. On to Goa!

*ok, I might have made that one up. But there was a set of Auckland rugby socks up there, honest!

20120131-204947.jpg Rugby socks.

Run, Mumbai, Run


15 January 2012

20120126-235007.jpg Mumbai from above

The newspaper under my door in the morning is an interesting read. It is a Hindu paper (the Hindustan Times) but in English, and appears to contain as much spin as it does news, though the pages devoted to arranged marriage ads is diverting – owning a house or having the right to settle abroad appears to be a bonus, there is a separate section for divorcees and even an ad from a couple in New Zealand seeking a wife for their son, who has a good job in Sydney.

Of more interest is the map on the back page, for today is the day of the great Mumbai marathon!

I can’t say I’ve noticed anyone out jogging since I’ve been here – the heat and pollution would be enough to put off most mortals – but the newspaper has photos of the Ethiopian team training in their track suits, and a map of the route which, conveniently, runs directly past my hotel. There are regular updates on TV (the run began at 6am, though there are shorter publicity runs for celebrities and fundraising groups later in the morning), and Bollywood stars pop up with soundbites about their love of running and their support for various charities. The marathon is sponsored by Kingfisher – whether the beer or the budget airline is unclear, though given the latter’s financial difficulties the former seems most likely. They’re both owned by the same family, in any case.

I wander out along D. N. Road after breakfast, following the route for a kilometre or so. It’s not quite the London marathon, with only 38,000 participants this year, but the event is only a few years old, and it’s growing. As well as the regular runners, there are unlikely groups of elderly Indians waving banners, who seem to be walking a much shorter course, and a few brave souls in fancy dress.

20120126-234851.jpg This guy was loving it.

Along the way, I pass the marker for the final 1km. A few girls in jeans carrying pompoms stand in a row on a small stage, giving the pompoms an occasional hesitant shake, as though not really sure why they are there and not really wanting to bring attention to themselves. Next to them a man with big hair and the unmistakeable tones of a radio DJ does his best to drum up excitement in the small crowd of spectators lining the route.

By midday, when it is time to catch a taxi to the station, the roads have reopened, and the last stragglers must compete with regular Saturday traffic as well as their own exhaustion for the final stretch.

I’m looking forward to my first long-distance train journey, an 8 hour stretch to Aurangabad, near the northern border of Maharashtra. Despite my fears, the station is crowded and the correct platform and carriage stop are easily found. As I look for a place to perch with my pack, another traveller comes up to me and asks if I’m heading to Aurangabad. I can’t quite place her accent, which turns out to be French Canadian. Alizé is part way through a year away from home, and fresh from a stint on the Christmas markets in France. By happy coincidence we are on the same carriage, and arrange a sneaky seat-swap so that we can sit together.

AC chair class is a pretty comfortable way to travel. It’s still pretty cheap, but the seats are like airline seats, with a lot more legroom. Even with AC the carriage is reasonably warm. Unfortunately the windows are tinted, so the countryside all the way to Aurangabad takes on a blue tinge.

The landscape, once we escape the city, is rocky and desert-like. We pass dry rice-paddies, cornfields reduced to rows of husky stumps, the plants themselves stacked in high pyramids to dry. There is the occasional ravine with a trickle of water at the bottom, and anywhere there is a trickle of water there is also an array of colourful washing drying in the sun. People walk along the tracks next to the train, some with huge loads on their heads. A man on a bicycle is nearly invisible in between a huge pile of sugarcanes. There are small clusters of houses, more of mud huts with tin or thatch on the roof. Then, unexpectedly, a row of shiny wind turbines appear on a ridge up ahead.

20120126-235241.jpg India through blue-tinted glasses

Inside the train, the aisles are a stream of attendants and a random assortment of vendors. There is the chaiwallah, the coffee wallah (I try one – it is Nescafé, which I expected – but it comes in only one variation: milky and sickly sweet), there is a boy of about 14 hawking small plastic helicopters (his double appears later selling “magic” wipe-off plastic books), the official train attendant selling bottled water and frooti, and the official in-house catering service, which comes in veg or non-veg. We opt for the veg, which turns out to be greasy fried rice. Still, there is plenty of it and it’s cheap – about 100 INR for the meal and the coffee (about $2).


20120126-235135.jpg Indian Railway Cuisine

At Igatpuri the train stops, and vendors on the platform swing into action, hoisting huge bowls of samosas and pakoras onto their shoulders and winding through as many carriages as they can manage before the train engine revs again. Each vendor has a distinct cry – one, who seems to be selling sweets, roams the train calling “cheekywallah, cheeky cheeky”.

As dusk begins to fall, just past Nasik Road, I notice two small boys flying kites from a roof top. Then another, and another – for the next few hundred metres there must be a hundred kites. Leftovers from Makar Sankranti?

We finally pull into Aurangabad station, to be greeted by chaos. The train terminates here, so it’s everybody off, and pushing and shoving to find the entrance. My hotel has sent a car to meet me, and we cause the young driver no end of confusion trying to get him to drop Alizé at her hotel first. He just wants to “chello hotel!”, but eventually we sort it out. I’m a little disconcerted to be kept waiting 30 minutes or so when I arrive – it’s 10pm and all I want is sleep, surely they knew I was coming! But after a brief sense-of-humour failure I’m finally allocated a room and collapse gratefully into sleep.