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Phespirit goes to India
tour     February/March 2005

AROUND INDIA

Map of India

1 Bangalore

Phespirit arrived in Bangalore late in the afternoon and was due to leave early the following morning. This did not leave much time to look around, and certainly no time to get a taxi through the dense traffic - the Bangalore Ballet - that all but gridlocks the city.

So, at 6:00pm he walked from his hotel in Crescent Road down to Racecourse Road and headed eastwards, passing the racecourse itself, to the end of the road, turned south at the busy intersection and kept walking until he faced Vidhana Soudha - the magnificent and palatial State Secretariat building.

By now it was 6:45pm, the sun had been down for a quarter of an hour and fruit bats were passing silently overhead, so this was to be the only sight that would Phespirit see in Bangalore.

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2 Sravanabelgola

Here be a temple.

A naked colossus in a Jain temple, surrounded by small shrines, all surrounded by a stone wall, all on top of a hill of rock with 642 steps carved up the side by which pilgrims and Phespirit ascend.

Sravanabelgola was the most awe-inspiring of all the holy places that Phespirit visited in India.

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3 Belur

Here be a temple.

The Chennakeshava temple is a 12th century walled complex, the centrepiece of which is a grand and lavishly executed star-shaped structure surrounded by satellite shrines. The complex is entered by means of a huge, grey, magnificently detailed tower gateway.

Phespirit walked around it in his socks as this is apparently more respectful than wearing shoes - as is the case in all temples.

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4 Halebid

Here be a temple.

Almost a temple, but one that was never quite finished. There are miniscule areas of masonry which lack the sumptuous decorative sculptures that adorn 99% of the exterior. Such negligible, almost imperceptible, details are the difference between it being regarded as a temple or a monument.

So here be a wonderful 12th century Hoysala monument.

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5 Hassan

Hassan is a large town with hot open roads, bustling with people, all busy with the business of life.

Phespirit stopped here for lunch - grilled chicken and a Kingfisher mineral water - at Hotel Hassan Ashok. The service was woefully slow, the chicken was blighted all over with a foul sauce, and the bill could hardly have been mathematically more wrong.

But apart from that, no complaints.

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6 Mysore

The heavyweight superstar of Mysore is the Maharajah's palace. It is stately, splendid, sumptuous and sprawling. His guesthouse is also a credit to the town. Most civilised and starchy.

For Phespirit, however, the 12th century temple on Chamundi Hill was the unmissable experience. Here he queued with hundreds of Hindus and tens of tourists to enter its sacred interior and catch a glimpse of the solid gold Chamundi figure contained within.

This is a vibrant, colourful, living holiness; human and happy.

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7 Coorg

Phespirit stayed at the Orange County Resort which according to the information board at reception is 19km southeast of Madikeria as the crow flies. Latitude: 12° 19' 45" N, longitude: 75° 53' 44" E, altitude: 867m (2844ft). All of which pretty much nails it down.

Plants that Phespirit saw around Orange County included: coffee, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, chilli, avocado, bananas, jackfruit, custard apple and vanilla. Coffee plantations dominate the area.

Birds included: Red-vented Bulbul, Alexandrine Parakeet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Golden-backed Woodpecker, Grey Hornbill, Spotted Doves, Common Myna, Coucal and varieties of bee-eater, sunbird and swallow, plus origami paper birds that Phespirit made to keep the local kids happy as he had no pens to give out.

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8 Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary

Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and Bandipur National Park are two halves of a single wilderness. The only distinction is that Bandipur is in Karnataka, whereas Mudumalai is in Tamil Nadu.

Phespirit was fortunate to gain entrance so late in the dry season as the park often shuts to prevent visitors from carelessly causing fires. But the park stayed open. And part of it was indeed afire.

Phespirit went on two official bus "safaris" around Mudumalai. On the first, from 4:45pm to 5:30pm, he saw elephants, spotted deer, peacocks, Malabar giant squirrels, macaques and langurs. Same again the next morning, from 7:15am to 8:00am, minus elephants but with the stunning addition of a pack of dholes (wild dogs, cuon alpinus) tearing apart a freshly killed deer. A rare roadside sight.

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9 Ooty

The predictability of it is saddening, but if Phespirit were to make his home in southern India then this would probably be the place. Saddening, because the land-grabbing tea planters of the English colonial era reached the same conclusion and built themselves a new England on this green and pleasant land that wasn't theirs.

It's the altitude that makes a difference. The climate is that much more hospitable for someone from an island in the North Atlantic. Doddabetta, on whose slopes Ooty is built, is the highest peak in Tamil Nadu at 2634m. The air is cooler and the views are superb.

The locals are charming in their own way. While Phespirit stalked the botanical gardens on Sunday, groups of them came up to him asking to shake his hand and have their photograph taken beside him, just because he was a different-looking outsider. Most odd.

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10 Coonoor

Coonoor was the fifth and final stop for Phespirit on his journey by train from Ooty. This journey showed another textbook example of gratuitous officialdom, as a ticket inspector checked and checked and checked again the same tickets, several times over, whilst on the platform at Ooty and again on the train. Despite the checking, he still erroneously attempted to charge Phespirit an excess fare. Phespirit persuaded him otherwise via the great gift of shouting.

Coonoor station provided an opportunity to see some of the last of India's original steam engines still at work. Wonderful stuff.

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11 Cochin

It is unusual for a city that has had so many colonial occupiers to have achieved greatness through trade and peacetime prosperity; through the business of those who have lived or worked here, and through the admiration of those irresistibly drawn to it.

Phespirit was irresistibly drawn to Cochin and much admired it.

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12 Alleppy

After a modest but entirely adequate meal of fish and chips at the Hotel Royale Park, Phespirit headed to one of Alleppy's canals to embark upon a cruise along Kerala's famous backwaters.

The backwaters extend over a broad area ranging from wide open expanses to narrow connecting channels. They are given form by a network of embankments, paddy fields and small communities. The pace of life seems impossibly sedate; superficially blissful.

Phespirit softly cruised along for almost three hours, passing very few other tourists in that time.

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13 Parimanam

Phespirit called in at the Sea Side Restaurant for a horribly milky cup of tea and a rest from his travels south.

Along the beachfront he noticed a breakwater of heavy blocks set some way back from the shoreline. This was a stable door closed too late. Parimanam was apparently hit very badly by the tsunami of 26th December 2004. Many people were killed.

Looking out at the placid horizon just two months later it seemed impossible to imagine such violence.

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14 Paripally

The temple festival at Paripally, held on Sunday 6th March 2005, was like Glastonbury with elephants.

Heavy rain, warm sunshine, wet clothes, muddy grounds .....
The thunderous beats of hypnotically incessant drums .....
Market stalls, trinket pedlars, hot food, cold food .....
A heady atmosphere, a happy atmosphere .....

..... and elephants, about fifty of them, all in magnificent garb.

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15 Varkala

In Phespirit's humble opinion, the most serene beaches in Kerala are those of Varkala. Jagged red laterite cliffs stand perpendicular to fine white sands, soft and hot, that stretch far out into the warm blue ocean.

Tourists are relatively few in number compared to those that flock to Kovalam. The ambience is laidback and dropped out. Phespirit walked along the beach, collected shells and swam in the shallow waters.

When he returns to Kerala, this is will be the place.

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16 Trivandrum

In Trivandrum, the state capital of Kerala, Phespirit:

  • peered inside the Sri Padamanabhaswamy temple, which only Hindus may enter (it being a Vishnu temple);
  • had a guided tour of the adjacent Puttan Malika palace;
  • strolled up MG Road, passing the Secretariat building with its pavements beset by assorted protest groups;
  • walked to the craft fair in the Victoria Jubilee Town Hall and further along to the cathedral on the right;
  • passed the Chandrasekharan Nair football stadium and the Kerala Legislature building (photography prohibited);
  • visited the Napier Museum and strolled around its grounds;
  • returned to Chalai Bazaar Road for a look along the shops.

It was a very hot day in the city. Phespirit was shattered.

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17 Poovar

Phespirit checked into the Isola di Cocco beach resort at 4:00pm. The sky was flawlessly blue, the temperature was a mellow 32°C. He drank from a fresh coconut at reception and was shown to his lodgings: a semi-detached cottage with spacious interior, satellite television and air conditioning. The shower was outside, walled in and covered by a lattice of flowering creepers. A large cactus had been planted adjacent, its thorns mercifully removed. Chipmunks and small birds capered around.

The first power cut occurred roughly an hour after checking in, but lasted for just thirty seconds; an interval of pure peaceful silence.

At night, Phespirit looked into the clear black sky and saw much more deeply than is possible in light-polluted England. He looked through Orion, far beyond his belt ..... "My God, it's full of stars!"

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18 Padmanabhapuram

The palace at Padmanabhapuram, which is geographically inside the borders of Tamil Nadu but which politically belongs to Kerala, is noted as a particularly fine example of Keralan architecture.

Phespirit noted its small doorways which, if he dropped his guard instead of his head, threatened to leave him picking teak splinters and terracotta from his forehead for the rest of the day.

Top tip: beware the red ants when walking around barefooted.

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19 Suchindram

The Stanunathaswami Temple drew Phespirit to Suchindram. It is both vast and exquisite, filled to the brim with sculptures, many of them erotic, and often at the gloriously obscene end of the scale.

There are musical stone pillars here, too.

Phespirit has found that most temples around the world will allow him to enter in regular attire, whilst women must be fully covered. The Stanunathaswami Temple, however, allows women to remain in regular attire, whilst Phespirit had to enter bare-chested.

There's progress.

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20 Kanniyakumari

Gandhi was here. On 15th January 1937, he wrote: "I am writing this at the Cape in front of the sea, where three waters meet and furnish a sight unequalled in the world. For this is no port of call for vessels. Like the Goddess, the waters around here are virgin."

Gandhi was here. In 1948, the year of his assassination, a portion of his cremated ashes was placed here for public viewing prior to being immersed at the Cape, where three waters meet. The place where his ashes rested is now marked by the Gandhi Mandapam, a bright pink museum in the Oriyan temple style, dedicated to his memory. His quote from 1937 is inscribed on the walls.

Phespirit immersed himself where the three waters meet and then climbed to the top of the Gandhi Mandapam to watch the sunset.

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  1. Bangalore
  2. Sravanabelgola
  3. Belur
  4. Halebid
  5. Hassan
  6. Mysore
  7. Coorg
  8. Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
  9. Ooty
  10. Coonoor
  11. Cochin
  12. Alleppy
  13. Parimanam
  14. Paripally
  15. Varkala
  16. Trivandrum
  17. Poovar
  18. Padmanabhapuram
  19. Suchindram
  20. Kanniyakumari
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Bangalore Sravanabelgola Belur Halebid Hassan Mysore Coorg Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary Ooty Coonoor Cochin Alleppy Parimanam Paripally Varkala Trivandrum Poovar Padmanabhapuram Suchindram Kanniyakumari