Tag Archives: tamil nadu

A tale of two cities – part 2 (the Troy of the East)

Take a look at this photograph.

Krishnagiri Fort at Gingee

Krishnagiri Fort at Gingee

See those imposing walls? That massive, two mile long, curtain wall is still complete and still mostly in good condition, not having been torn apart for building materials, succumbed to developmental stress as in European cities or having been perforated by “heritage hotels” as was the fate of the fort in Jaiselmer. That moat is 80 feet across. Once upon a time, it was home to numerous crocodiles and snakes to ward off attackers. It is probably still home to many snakes. Places like this are where the stereotype of a crocodile infested moat come from. See the fort up on the rocky hill? That is Krishnagiri; the queen’s fort. Rajagiri (the king’s fort) and a third fort, called Chamar Tikri, are on a hill a kilometer to the left and behind the camera respectively.

Welcome to Gingee!

The fortress complex at Gingee was originaly built in the 9th century and considerably upgraded in the 13th century. It was self sustaining. In the 17th century, the invading Mughals required a seven year siege in order to capture the fort. Father Pinments, British visitor in the 18th century, called it the “Troy of the East”. One can easily spend a full day here and not see everything.

What don’t you see in that picture? People!

Strangely enough, while Mahabalipuram, two hours away, is mobbed with tourists, Gingee, despite its scenic delights and colorful history; is empty. That is something that I’ll never understand about this country.

Temple Gopura

Temple Gopura

Cave Temple

Cave Temple

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A tale of two cities – part I (the tourist trap)

Mahabalipuram is an old temple town on the shores of the Indian Ocean, south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It’s ancient shore temple is famous for being the first of its architectural type; an architectural format that was widely exported around southeast Asia. It is a beautiful temple. Mahabalipuram also has a fascinating park in the center of town, with rock carvings, cave temples and oddly enough, a giant rock that reminds me of a glacial erratic (giant boulder in a place where it should not be. Usually carried by ice sheets during an ice age). Siva tells me that the carving of the descent of the Ganges (see below) were in one of her history books in school. The rock is a common feature of travel guides. This puzzles me. It is an interesting rock, but there are a lot of really cool things in south India and Tamil Nadu specifically that are much more interesting and photogenic. How about the temples at Tiruvannamalai or Maduri, with their magnificient gopuras? Then again, you see few western tourists in Tiruvannamalai and the few westerners that you do see are there doing the spiritual/ashram thing. So it is not surprising to see no Tiruvannamalai photos in Lonely Planet.

You see many more western tourists in Pondicherry… oh and in Mahabalipuram. The place was an absolute madhouse. We were there with half of France and all of Chennai it seems. It is a holiday week in France. This coincided with a long weekend in south India and an early summer heatwave (yes Virginia, summer has already begun here even though it is only February). There were an oppressive number of tourists. To make matters worse, the touts and beggars were as bad as anything I’ve seen in the tourist traps of Jaipur.

We spent all of three hours in town before we had to retreat back to the quiet of the countryside. It was a pity as without the people, it probably would have been a day well spent wandering about and contemplating history. Perhaps we’ll go again. On a weekday next time!

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Cave Temple

Shore Temple

Descent of the Ganges

Shore Temple

The Famous Rock

Meditating Fishermen

It is dawn on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The eastern sky has developed a deep shade of orange in preparation for the sun to peek above the distant clouds on the horizon. The sea has taken on steel hue of morning twilight. Down the beach, the fishermen stir. In a short while, they will board their boats, surge through the surf and head out to sea for the day. A few squat in a row, looking out to sea. (Westerners and upper class Indian sit cross legged. Working class Indians squat when they wish not to stand) It is a romantic scene in this land of spirituality. Are they praying, meditating, contemplating the day or simply enjoying the sunrise?

Then they leave and you look down…

Why They Meditate

Why They Meditate

Agitating Lawyers

Do you see a well dressed man approaching? Does he look to be of the prosperous upper middle class? Is he wearing a suit or dhoti? Is he soft spoken and Oxford educated? Then he probably means to clobber you with a stick!

I caught something when I turned on the TV today to check the Indian news. Lawyers were “agitating” in Chennai. After that, I found an article about it in the morning paper. I put “agitating” in quotes because it is a euphemism. When Indians agitate, they are not protesting. They are not holding place cards and perhaps shouting slogans. No folks. In India, “agitation” means “rampaging mobs and all hell breaking loose on the streets”.

Just in case I was not clear. Lawyers are rioting in the streets of Chennai and burning effigies of the police. Lawyers!!! Now I’d be concerned if all of the lawyers in the city hated me. I’d sell assets and hide any money I had in a bank in Lichtenstein (ok, not there after the German tax men hacked their banks) Barbados and prepare to have my socks sued off from here to kingdom come. I’d never dream that they’d form a mob and come after me physically before suing me. This shatters one of the certainties I had about life. Students riot. Truckers riot. Anarchists riot. Lawyers sue! Apparently not here. India; the land where even lawyers form bloodthirsty mobs rampaging in the streets… errr agitate.

On a side note, we are off to a three day weekend in that part of Tamil Nadu (Pondicherry and Mamallapuram). I hope we don’t meet any lawyers.

I’m going to go to bed and ponder on the strangeness that is the whole idea of lawyers rioting.

Indiana Joneses

We took a day trip to Krishnagiri this past weekend. It is a town in Tamil Nadu, about an hour and a half east of Bangalore. It’s main claim to fame seems to be that is sits at a road junction between the superhighway to Chennai on the coast and the half built superhighway heading towards points south.

Lonely Planet does not mention Krishnagiri; not even an “overlooked gem” mention, which Tiruvannamalai gets. They don’t seem to get many visitors there; especially westerners. For example, when I stepped into a shop to see about buying a cola (you can buy Coca Cola and Pepsi in the remotest corners of the world it seems), the elderly proprietor –who was Muslim judging by his white skullcap, knee length white kurda, the fact that an Urdu girls school was across the street and there were women in Burkas on the street – stared at me, slack-jawed. I felt like I was in the presence of an Islamic Gomer Pyle. He did not know any English and I was wondering if going to fetch Siva from the car to have a Tamil speaker present would help. This seemed to be an Urdu speaking pocket and I’m not even sure this guy could speak Tamil. Fortunately, his middle-aged son was not so stunned by the sudden appearance of the green antennaed alien in sunglasses. I asked him if he had cola.

No Coca Cola, only Sprite. You want?

I demurred and bid the slack jawed purveyor of Sprite and his son a good day.

Krishnagiri may not be in the guidebooks, but it certainly is at least as nice as Nandi Hills and certainly worthy of a day trip from Bangalore. The town is dominated by a mountain, on the top of which rests the ruins one of Tipu Sultan’s forts. This mountain is in effect a slightly rounded mesa and the old fortifications ring the outer edge of the table top. The rest is scattered ruins set in wild nature. There were hardly any people up there even on a Saturday afternoon; only some kids taking a swim in an old ritual pool from the Sultan’s time and a few Pentecostals singing the praises of Jesus in Tamil. We could picnic and explore to our hearts content.

This being India, there was a shrine on the mountain-top. Krishnagiri being heavily muslim, it was an Islamic shrine. What struck me was how colorful and almost kitsch it was. (no, I did not take my shoes off and step inside, but it was an outdoor shrine overlooked by a giant rock) Somehow, I was expecting something austere and almost Calvanist as the wahhabist variety practiced in the Arabian peninsula largely defines my stereotypes of Islam. I don’t know if it was a Sufi shrine. To my knowledge, Sufism has a lot of mysticsm thrown in; somewhat resembling the Catholicism of Central and South America.

The mountain top was repeatedly visited by a pair of short toed eagles and I think that Sammy and I found a baby monitor lizard. They can theoretically grow to six feet, but as “Iguana” (a local misnomer for the monitor) blood is reputed to have magical healing properties, most don’t live to get any bigger than a couple of feet long. Oh and don’t let them hit you with their tail! It will turn you into a hijra (transvestite); or so our driver once told Daniela.

Oh and did I mention that we did a lot of exploring? I felt like Indiana Jones for most of the time.

Pic of the Day – Diwalli Best

We took this shot last weekend when hiking at Hogenakal Falls. These two rural village women may live in a hut with a thatched roof, but in their Diwalli best (Indians always dress up for Diwalli), they were much better dressed than we sloppy trekkers were.

Tamil Vilagers

Tamil Vilagers

Hogenakal Falls

On Sunday, we took a day trip to Hogenakal Falls, on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. It is a three and a half hour drive from our house in Bangalore. In any country but India, I’d regard this as outside of daytrip distance, but the fact that it takes forever to get anywhere has toughened us with regard to out daytrip driving tolerance.

After driving 100 kilometers while dodging ghost driving motorcycles and busses on the superhighway (ummm… guys, you have two lanes demarcated for you just over there ) and a 50 km jaunt through rural Tamil Nadu, the road came to a barrier. We paid twenty rupees road toll and another ten to the forest department and started into the park that houses the falls.

It was almost like being in an American national park. Suddenly there was no traffic, just the road through the mountainous forest, scenic vistas and the odd roadside monkey troop. It was a tropical Smokey Mountain National Park, complete with stone kilometer markers.

Then we arrived in Hogenakal village, at the falls itself.

It was as if someone took a Tamil rendition of Pigeon Forge and instead of thoughtfully leaving it just outside the park’s boundaries, dumped it smack in the middle of the park. Oh and given Indians’ attraction to waterfalls, it was another taste of Athirapilly style mass tourism. Not a foreigner in sight, besides ourselves. Oddly, every second person asked us if we wanted a massage. It turns out that this stretch of the Kaveri River is famous for its healing properties and has become a bit of a domestic spa town.

The falls themselves were magnificent! They are not high. At their highest part, they are only 120 feet high and look to be much less. They are formed where a wide, shallow section of the river is speared head on by a narrow, rocky gorge. This gorge spears a kilometer (about 2/3 mile) into the river as the river collapses into it.

How the falls are laid out

How the falls are laid out

The result is an endless series of falls on both sides. And we were there at the height of the Northeast Monsoon; so the river was an angry white torrent as it crashed into and trough the gorge. We walked around the lower and middle falls and then we and the rest of India took a ride in a coracle – a kind of round canoe – to a small island at the very tip of the falls; perhaps too close in retrospect. But hey, they were definitely worth a visit; despite the distance and the crowds.

Lower Falls

Lower Falls


Middle falls with the upper falls in the distance

Middle falls with the upper falls in the distance


Upper Falls

Upper Falls


Boatman with his coracle

Boatman with his coracle