Earthly and Godly pursuits in Tamil Nadu

I've made my way down to Cape Comorin. Outside of my window (to my left at the present) cloudy skies glow faintly with the setting sun. Pilgrims, tourists and their concessions are everywhere but the streets are quiet and peaceful, as if everyone were silently reflecting upon their geographical position at the tapered end of the subcontinent while a light marine breeze keeps one cool from all directions.

I arrived early this morning on an overnight train from Madurai. I managed to nab a last minute reserved berth in an AC sleeper wagon from which I emerged surprisingly rested in time for sunrise. Since leaving Bangalore, I have pushed to experience the most of this eye-opening state whilst still keeping up with the general timetable that I have drawn up for the next month. I have gone to Chennai (Madras), Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), Trichy (Tiruchirapalli), Dindigul (work), Thanjavur (Tanjore) and Madurai.


 Chennai was a worthwhile first stop. As the fourth largest city in India, this coastal metropolis feels both fast-paced and at times village-like. Our incoming intercity bus passed numerous engineering schools and recently built factories on its way in, but after catching a metropolitan bus to the centre, the city regained its fruit stalls, mechanic shops, restaurants (“hotels”) and rickshaw-dominated avenues lined with narrow tree-covered roads, some likely on their way to the wide and golden Marina Beach. The air is hot and humid and the din reminds one of Mumbai, but it feels more spacious and cooler-tempered than its west coast counterpart. 


And then it's also the capital of Tamil Nadu, where state politics take centre stage in every public space in the form of giant portrait-ridden political party posters. It is also immediately apparent coming from Karnataka that women are more actively present in public life, carrying themselves with stature, their heads always remarkably poised in spite of their long and heavy black braids. I have learnt that numerous parties freely interact at the state government level (the communist flag is not hard to spot driving through villages) and there is a strong political culture of supporting solidarity amongst the masses by helping the poor, building new infrastructure and upholding commitments to high educational standards for all. The practicality of carrying out these goals, especially with so much political discourse, is likely complicated, but I have yet to see such faith in the government and the society as in Tamil Nadu.

Sebastian, the Argentinian manager of a Chennai Spanish tapas restaurant gave me a memorable quote. We were discussing that the spiritual side of India is not always as prominent as we are made to believe by stereotypes, but it is indirectly quite evident in the overall level of tolerance given the economic disparities and very high population densities.

If this were Buenos Aires, there would be civil war!

The evening bus to Mamallapuram stripped me of all my enthusiasm as the 80km trip took almost five hours in the evening suburban traffic. Mamallapuram was also a bit underwhelming — normally a popular hang-out for hippie backpackers who come for a beach town and world-heritage temple sites, these characters were practically absent along with any semblance of an alternative spiritual scene. I enjoyed walking around the temple sites, mostly because of the large rounded basalt rock faces and boulders, but the best place I went was outside of town to the Madras Crocodile Farm, a conservation park for crocodilian species from around the world. The park is small, but it has all of the species endemic to India, including the exclusively fish eating and critically endangered Gharial crocodile of the Ganges.


There is no definite answer, but what would you guess gave me another bout of antibiotic-requiring indigestion that day? Other than bottled water and juice, this is what I ingested:

Which food item created the need to take antibiotics again?

  • Two fresh coconuts of juice and inner jelly (50%, 2 Votes)
  • Sweet paan: paan leaf with a host of sweet, syrupy and crunchy fillings (25%, 1 Votes)
  • Fried rice with cabbage, carrot, egg and small pieces of peppered beef (25%, 1 Votes)
  • South Indian breakfast of two dosas (large rice flour crepes), with sambar and coconut chutney (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Chicken biryani from a small street restaurant (popular) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 4

Either way, I got myself on a bus the next morning back to Chennai to catch a train to Trichy (official name Tiruchirapalli). I was too late to purchase a reserved ticket and would have to fend it off with the rest of the riders if I wanted a seat. Fortunately, a young guy called Manikandan chatted me up on the platform and with wide smile asked if he could help me in my journey. Before I knew it, him and me were sitting with our feet dangling out of the door, squished into to scenic outside door frame thanks to his tactful rush and push at boarding. Watching the lush scenery change colour in the late afternoon, we managed to talk about a lot in spite of my lack of Tamil / his broken English. He got off at an earlier stop than Trichy, but by then we had managed to bring in another cool dude called Karthik, whose ideas I will quote in a future post. I met his brother upon arrival and we went for a quick cup of chai before I retreated to my hotel.


Trichy is a city of 900,000 inhabitants straddling the sacred Cauvery river in central Tamil Nadu. It is famous for its exquisite Sri Ranganathaswamy temple complex dedicated to Vishnu and Rockfort temple dedicated to Shiva built high atop a steep hill in the middle of the city’s commercial area, or bazaar. Thanks to a friendly and informative guide, I learnt a lot about Hinduism that day. The prevalence of icons makes it difficult for me to focus on the underlying spirituality, but I find the mythology tying them together beautiful. The cult of Shiva is especially fascinating to me with the omnipresent reverence of the lingam, a particularly-shaped object representing Shiva’s power that some associate with phallic symbology. Protected lingams were present everywhere at Chola empire period Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, where I went three days later to visit a very ancient sandstone temple complex dedicated to the mighty destroyer creator and his mount the bull Nandi. I made it to the central chamber of the main temple to see the adornment of the enormous 4–5m tall central lingam with garlands, much like the following mural depicts.


A classic lingam, with the three horizontal lines of Shiva


 In between Trichy and Thanjavur, I spent two days completing my work in India with some final process documentation at a factory near the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains. There I experienced the Monsoon at its awe-striking best. I had a good time with my colleagues, it made for melancholy last days with the company. For those of you who are wondering why I am finished with my job, a) I want to keep traveling b) I will be attending graduate school in Stockholm in September. I will be a student again! 


Thanjavur’s temple, royal palace and scenic and relaxed small-town atmosphere won me over pretty quickly, but I still managed to pull off and reach Madurai by Saturday night on time for a self-guided temple tour of its own renowned temple honouring Shiva (the central lingam is off-limits to non-Hindus though). People were everywhere, bats were flying through at high speed echo-locating their way with high-pitched chirps. And right in the middle is a giant tourist market for religious paraphernalia.

I am liking Tamil Nadu a lot, it feels progressive and very authentic. There is strong regard for both the field worker and the student toiling away at a “triple E” Electronic and Electrical Engineering degree at their parents’ behest, as essential determinants of the state’s future.

I shall write you soon from somewhere north dear reader.