Tag Archives: tamil nadu

Backpacking India: Madurai

India - Madurai
Most tourists who visit Madurai are pilgrims come to visit the Meenakshi Temple. And we felt like our foreignness was being taken advantage of at first. Our rickshaw driver tried to increase the price once we arrived at our hotel. And the price of laundry kept on increasing every time we mentioned it at the hotel or other places. But we slowly started to see the magic that Madurai has to offer.

India - Madurai
The Meenakshi- Sundareshwarar temple is quite spectacular. It was built over hundreds of years from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It takes up a large city block, complete with five entrances (gopuras), a lotus tank, meditation area, sculptures, a room with a thousand pillars, and shrines dedicated to Meenakshi and Shiva. The place was more elaborate than other temples we’ve visited with a combination of natural stone carvings and painted symbols. We were a little disappointed that the main shrines are for Hindus only, but considering the thousand-person lines, we probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. We got a guide who helped explain the history, architecture, and spiritual meaning of the many carvings and shrines, including an interesting statue that pregnant mothers pour oil on to ensure childbirth is smooth.

India - Madurai
Just outside the temple was an old building, very similar in style to the temple, that was being used as a market mostly by tailors. We were surprised to see such amazing architecture used for a regular, everyday purpose. And this kept on happening, we’d turn a corner and see some really interesting building, sometimes restored as a tourist or religious site, sometimes used for government purposes, and other times holding who knows what. There were also lots of narrow alleys that were nice for walking – mostly kids playing or neighbours chatting.

India - Madurai
One evening we went to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace to see the sound and light show. They illuminated different areas around this large, open-air hall and told the story of a Tamil king, Shilipaddikaram, and reign of the Nayaks. It was an interesting way to learn more history and see part of the Palace. The format is quite popular here, but leaves a little something to be desired as far as evening entertainment goes.

India - Madurai

We also visited one of India’s many Gandhi museums. It told the history of India’s independence movement (with a anti-British bent) and Gandhi’s life story. It was strange how they purposefully left out how he died even though the museum holds the blood-soaked garment he was wearing. It was one of the more interesting museums we’ve visited so far but very information dense.

India - Madurai

India - Madurai

Backpacking India: Christmas at Karuna Farm (Kodaikanal)

Karuna Farm - Christmas
It is hard to feel festive when travelling through a hot, predominantly Hindu nation in December. So it is fitting we spent our Indian Christmas in one of the coldest spots in the south. We spent 4 days at Karuna Farm, a working farm with guest cabins perched above a terraced hillside near Kodaikanal, a hill station in the Western Ghat mountains. It was a unique Christmas experience and unlike anything else we’ve experienced in India.

India - Karuna Farm

The most memorable visitor on Christmas morning was not Santa Claus (who did leave us socks stuffed with fruit and chocolate) but a cheeky monkey who stole a bag of flour while I cooked Christmas breakfast (fresh chapatis) in the outdoor kitchen. The monkeys here are cute but terribly mischievous.
India- Karuna farm Karuna Farm - Christmas Karuna Farm - Christmas Karuna Farm - Christmas

The farm is set in a tropical paradise, with buildings spread out in the dense vegetation. When we arrived the valley was cloaked in a dense cloud and it was impossible to tell how high we were and how big the farm was. Occasionally the clouds would dissipate giving a fabulous view of the peaks above or the valley below.

India - Boxing Day hike

India - Boxing Day hike

Karuna Farm is an interesting mix of permanent residents (some expats and some Nepalese farmers), volunteers, and guests. Every morning at 8:30 we had a yoga class lead by one of the residents. She is an excellent yoga instructor and every class focused on something new. The yoga studio is a gorgeous building with a stunning view of the valley bellow. Our yoga classes were the perfect start to each day.

Karuna Yoga Centre

We didn’t have much to do each day but relax. Our days consisted of yoga, cooking, eating, hiking the winding trails, talking to other guests, and sitting around. The mornings were usually clear and then the clouds would roll into the valley bellow, making it look like we were floating in the clouds. We found a great 2-hour hike up to a peak above the farm with views of the surrounding area.

India - Boxing Day hike

There were a few nice places to sit and reflect. The Rock – outcropping near a terraced farm; and The Pool – a waterfall with a shady spot to sit.

India - Karuna Farm kodaikanal

In December it was cold, at least by Indian standards, especially when the sun went down. We had to wear all of the warm clothing we brought (fleeces, jackets, and socks). In some ways it was a welcome change from the heat of the coast, but we froze our butts off at night. Our little hut was very basic, a roof and 4 walls without any source of heat. A few warm blankets is all we had.

Information for other travellers:
– the restaurant serves good, cheap food (menu). Dinner is free but the timing of the food is erratic. We brought groceries with us and cooked breakfast and lunch, but there is no need.
– there is a big difference in quality of the cabins. We stayed in Shanti (not recommended) which was tiny and had a rudimentary outdoor kitchen and no source of heat. Jamune and Ganga are much nicer with indoor kitchens and fireplaces. All cabins have pit toilets. There is cold running water.
India - Karuna Farm India - Karuna Farm kodaikanal
– the cabins are very spread out. Some are next to the restaurant and some are a 10 minute hike. See map with some cabins labelled.
– filtered drinking water is available in the restaurant.
– food is all vegetarian and alcohol and drugs are prohibited.
– there is basic electricity from solar panels, enough to charge a mobile phone. That said, cellular reception is sketchy. You can get a weak signal sometimes at the restaurant, or a stronger one if you hike up to the viewpoint.
– to get to the farm, we took an overnight bus into Kodaikanal and then called for a jeep to drive us to the farm (400 rupees). You can get to the farm by local bus and a 30 minute hike, but the bus only runs twice a day.

Backpacking India: Mamallapuram

India - Mamallapuram - Shore Temple
Mamallapuram was the second stop on our Indian adventure – a tourist-friendly beach town just south of Chennai.

When leaving Chennai, we knew that we could take a city bus to Mamallapuram, we just weren’t sure exactly how. Google maps told us to take an urban bus and then transfer to a longer distance bus that goes into Mamallapuram. Since there is so much traffic in the city, we thought it would be faster to take the train out and then catch the long distance bus, so we found a station that should cross the bus route. Well, it didn’t exactly work out that way. We had to walk a few blocks from the station to the bus depot and ended up getting on a different bus than we expected to Mamallapuram. But we got there and it only took just over an hour.

India - Mamallapuram
When we arrived in town and started to wander around our guesthouse, we felt like we had been transported to a different world. There were more tourists than cars on the street, every shop was selling the same tourist items (water, toilet paper, clothing, and stone carvings), the restaurants were advertising seafood and coffee. Eventually we realized that the town really has been built around tourism, especially after the Shore Temple become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that there was another part of town where the locals conducted their lives.

India - Mamallapuram - Five Rathas
So many tourists come to Mamallapuram because it has the earliest surviving Pallava rock carvings. There are numerous rathas, caves, bas-reliefs and temples right in town and within a hundred meters of the beach. Most of the structures were created to show off the talents of the local stone carvers, an art form which is still done in town but as stand alone pieces. The carvers created these massive structures by chipping away at rocks embedded in the ground, from the top down. The detail is amazing, even after centuries of wind and ocean beating them down.

India - Mamallapuram
There is a nice sandy beach, but the waves are too strong for swimming. It’s mostly used by fishermen, dogs, and cows. We did end up walking back into town from the Tiger Cave (about 5 km’s) along the beach and it was quite pleasant.

India - Mamallapuram
We sampled a few of the tourist restaurants, in addition to our regular pure veg meals. It was generally disappointing, either because of the food or the service. The tourist food usually includes seafood, burgers, pizza, pasta, Chinese, and other things that aren’t particularly vegan friendly. So we often ended up ordering Indian dishes for four times the price and half the tastiness. Some of the touristy restaurants have a nice ambience, and it was a treat to have things like walnut pie and beer (Tamil Nadu is technically a dry state).

India - Mamallapuram
Since Chris was recovering from his food poisoning, we ended up taking a taxi from Mamallapuram to Pondicherry. We were disappointed to miss out on another bus adventure.

Backpacking India: Chennai

India - Chennai
Five days in Chennai was more than enough. In many ways it was a good place to start our indian adventure, but we’re happy to move on.

The food was excellent and cheap (except for the night we splurged for Emily’s birthday dinner at Royal Vega). The public transportation system was good and will be even better when the new subway lines are done soon.

There aren’t a lot of sights to see but there are a lot of interesting neighborhoods to explore.

India - Emily's birthday
Kapalishvara Temple – beautiful architecture, relaxed for a holy site, interesting place to sit and watch rituals being performed.
Fort St George – awkward to get to, mostly restricted access for government business, but the museum provides a good historical context for the city
Government Museum – four museums in one covering stone and bronze statues, natural sciences, art, children’s, puppetry, etc. The site contains several old buildings with neat architecture, some falling into disrepair, but they are over 150 years old.

India - Chennai
Mylapore – new shaded side streets to explore. Interesting juxtaposition of new, rich areas, and some really poor areas.
Triplicane – a bit more hectic, a big mosque they wouldn’t let us into
T Nagar – big shopping area, an unbelievable crush of people, particularly around the train station. We went to an interesting theatre complex to see a dance show.
Georgetown – the area inhabited by the locals when the Fort was first constructed by the British. There are lots of narrow streets selling anything from pots to motorcycle parts to fruit.
Egmore – the area around the train station with the most tourist restaurants and hotels we saw. Quite hectic into the night with people coming and going.

The biggest downside of Chennai is how hostile it is to pedestrians. The sidewalks ware rarely walkable so you’re often in the street fighting off space with honking vehicles, people, cows, goats, and trees. We only found one light with a pedestrian signal and almost died trying to follow it.

The biggest advantage to Chennai was being able to act like a local. You can take public transit, shop, eat, and never get different, tourist treatment.

Backpacking India: Day 0 – The Arrival

Emily and I have arrived safe and sound in India.

It was a long series of uneventful flights to get here. I spent most of the way to Toronto and then Frankfurt catching up on action and superhero movies that all blend together now (although Guardians of the Galaxy was really good). On the way to Chennai, I actually managed to get a few hours of sleep, with earplugs drowning out the screaming child in the seat in front of me. Emily was less lucky and is still sleeping as I write this at 6 am.

We had no problem getting through Indian customs. We arranged a pre-paid taxi to drive us to our hotel – the YWCA International Guest House. I assumed it would be straight forward, as it is one of only 10 places recommended in our guide book, but our driver didn’t speak English and didn’t recognize the name. Luckily, he was smart enough to ask us for a phone number in broken English and called ahead for directions.

At 2 am, the traffic wasn’t bad and we got a whirlwind tour of Chennai, which in the glow of street lights consisted mainly of rundown buildings and roads ripped up for a new metro line. Hopefully it looks better by daylight, but our guide book does note that most travelers move on as quick as possible. We plan on spending 5 days as we acclimatize to India.

Our hotel tried to screw us over when we arrived. I was too tired to notice, but Emily knew something was wrong. We had reserved a simple room but they put us in a double the price a/c room and collected most of the money up front before I noticed what was going on. I’m still getting used to the exchange rate. Nothing to nefarious, but a perfect welcome to India and a good reminder to stay sharp. We confronted the manager last night, but he claims that a/c rooms is all they have for the next 2 nights and we can move to cheaper rooms after. I think he was lying, but we needed to sleep. Hopefully we can straighten it out today.

It’s warm here, but air conditioning isn’t necessary. We didn’t use it last night and slept fine. The constant honking of cars is more of an annoyance than the temperature. Hopefully we can get a non a/c room that doesn’t face the main road.