Tamil Nadu: Frenetic Chennai, Colonial Pondicherry and Auspicious Madurai

Mar 25th-29th, 2017

The amazing Rocky of the guesthouse bearing his name went above and beyond and secured us emergency aircon sleepers on a train from Hospet to Renigunta in Andhra Pradesh. 

After an 11 hour ride, we had two hours to kill in Renigunta before the second half of our journey, and decided that a café or restaurant would be more enjoyable than fending off the beggar children that continually approached us at the train station. 

Before long it was time to head back to the train station and board our connecting train to Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu State, and some say even the entire south of India.

In no time we were at the central station and ready to head to our guesthouse in the Triplicane district of Chennai. 

We were staying at Paradise Guesthouse  (www.paradiseguesthouse.co.in) and managed to get an aircon room for a reasonable price thanks to the wonderful Rubin who was also as hilarious as he was kind. He recommended we check out the lighthouse at Marina Beach for our first taste of the city. 

We took a tuk tuk there and then an elevator up to the top floor. Like most things in India it was quite packed, but with a little patience and a little pushing, we got in some beautiful views of the beach and also of the city. 

Once down, we took a stroll along Marina Beach and got a sense of all the local sights and sounds.

Marina Beach seemed to be a hub for makeshift and manpowered children’s amusement park rides. It had an Indian county fair type vibe and was extremely enjoyable to people watch. 

We walked around a bit more and then admired the Mahatma Gandhi statue before hopping into another tuk tuk, this time headed towards the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. 

After an attempted screw-over by the tuk tuk driver, we disembarked, handed over the agreed upon price and disappeared into the crowd.

This temple was colourful in the typical Tamil style, and it was busy, but good busy.  

Rather than paying to hand in our shoes, we tucked them into our pants and made the rounds of the temple. 

It was obviously puja time and the place was simply buzzing. We weren’t allowed into the most sacred part of the temple as non-Hindus but just wandering through the scores of people was an adventure in itself. 

Afterwards, we made our way back to Triplicane and had a rooftop beer and some food to cap off our evening. Chennai was pretty sweet!

The following morning, the three of us hopped in a tuk tuk and asked to be brought to Fort St George in the north end of the city. 

Unfortunately, the driver had no idea where he was going and dropped us off in front of a Catholic Church. 

We decided that since we were there we should check out the interior. It was interesting how Hindu traditions have been integrated into Catholic practice. For instance, everyone had to remove their shoes before entering the church and all the parishioners were touching the feet of the religious sculptures praying for whatever it is that that saint represented. 

Right next to it was also an old Armenian church, where we received an impromptu tour from the church curator. 

We happened to be just around the corner from the High Court of Chennai, said to be the second largest judicial building in the world, so Tracy wanted to wander around its massive grounds. 

Since it was a weekend, there weren’t any lawyers or judges present and we had to be escorted around by two female police officers who seemed to be made fun of by all their colleagues, but we still got to see these somewhat impressive buildings. 

At this point Kristin had to go try to change her flight reservation, so Tracy and I decided we would still try to find the Fort we had come to see. 

We tried walking, all the while it was so hot that the streets literally were melting and sinking our flip flops into its pavement, but were unable to find it without wandering onto an expressway. We flagged down an autorickshaw and he brought us there in no time.

Fort St George was built in 1653 by the British East India Company and today it is used as a precinct housing the secretariat and legislative assembly. 

There was a museum there but we opted not to enter, instead choosing to take some pictures of old military cannons lying among piles of garbage. 

Also within the compound is St Mary’s Church. Completed in 1680, it is India’s oldest surviving British church. It was closed on Sunday (go figure), but still made for a nice picture from the outside. 

Tracy and I got back to the hotel and unfortunately Kristin wasn’t able to fix her flight so we had to pack up and leave to our next destination, Pondicherry. 

Rubin was a star and it so happened that his cousin was also staying at the hotel and was heading to Pondy that afternoon. Rubin arranged for a proper taxi, like an actual car with air conditioning, to bring the four of us to the bus station in the south of the city. 

There was a local non-aircon bus ready to go, so we hopped on and it left almost immediately. 

Within three hours we were in the heart of Pondicherry. Pondicherry, or Pondy as the cool kids say, was a former French colony since the early 18th century and remained so until around fifty years ago. Its charm lies in the fact that its eastern portion retains much of the original French architecture and layout, and many of Pondy’s residents still speak French.

We took a tuk tuk to our room, the slightly overpriced Kailash Guesthouse. Once there, we settled in and grabbed a bite to eat at the bustling Surguru restaurant. 

The following morning we woke up early and headed towards the French quarter. Within only a few minutes, the streets widened, the buildings were pastel colours and the typical Indian noise, smells, and chaos seemed to fade away (somewhat!). 

We walked along Avenue Goubert, the seaside promenade, and made our way east past the French consulate and the central Gandhi statue. 

From there we just sauntered around admiring the distinctly un-Indian architecture and vibe. 

We found Café des Arts and had surprisingly authentic French crêpes and baguette before resuming our walking tour. 

We approached the beautiful Notre Dame des Anges church, built in 1858, and admired the interior but refrained from taking any pictures because a funeral was taking place inside. 

We wandered around a little more and made our way to Pondy’s Muslim quarter.

We got a little lost, but it was still great navigating the narrow streets with multi-coloured facades and finding a few hidden mosques. 

We decided to walk back along Mahatma Gandhi Road towards Pondy’s market. 

The market itself wasn’t too remarkable, but nice nonetheless. 

We walked back up Nehru Street, Pondy’s major shopping street and accidentally ran into La Boutique d’Auroville. 

For those unfamiliar, myself included at the time, Auroville is a fascinating experiment in international living where people live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, politics and nationalities. It is a place that no nation can claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings can live free as citizens of the world. 55 languages are spoken here in this small settlement where 1700 residents reside, lying just over the border with Pondy in Tamil Nadu (Pondy is actually a Union Territory town surrounded by Tamil Nadu). 

Tracy knows someone whose mother lived in the community for over 10 years and she was incredibly interested in visiting it. Kristin was also intrigued, and I thought it sounded like a big hippie cult, but I was outnumbered and it was closed the following day so it was now or never. We chose now.

We headed back to Kailash and hopped in a tuk tuk. Auroville was far more remote and rural than we thought, but the near constant stream of whities on scooters told us we were going in the right direction. 

We arrived at the Visitors’ Centre and had to watch a few videos on what the community was about as well as a video on the famed Matrimandir.

The Matrimandir is a giant golden golf ball, or orb, designed to be the spiritual and physical centre of Auroville, designed by the community’s deceased matriarch, “The Mother”.

Once we watched the video (cult propaganda in my opinion), we were given permission to go see the Matrimandir. 

We had to walk around 1.5 km and first encountered a giant bodhi tree just on the outskirts of the Matrimandir. 

We walked a little further. And there it was, in all its golden glory!

We took some pics with it and tried to respect the people who were meditating in front of it.

That was short lived because a group of Indian tourists surrounded them and had loud conversations, killing their zen. 

We then went to the compound’s café and tried to meet up with a contact Tracy was given from the guy’s mom, but unfortunately it was the guy’s day off. 

I’m not sure about Tracy and Kristin, but I left Auroville with more questions than answers and a realization that cults aren’t for me. Especially not rural ones in the middle of India.

Upon our return to Pondy, we went to the famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and did a brief tour. 

Our hope was to do a yoga class the following morning, but they only accepted serious yoga students committed to staying at least a month, not inflexible Canadians wanting some casual yoga stretches. 

For dinner we went to the amazing yet pricey Dupleix Hotel after having stopped for some photos in Bharathi Park with its arc de triomphe-style structure at its centre.

As we were walking there, we passed by the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, with its colourful facade and lively resident elephant giving blessings outside.

After dinner, we walked back to our guesthouse pretty damn impressed with what we had done on our first day in Pondy. 

Not to mention, on our way back, Goubert Street became a pedestrian area and families were casually strolling and playing on the Gandhi statue. There were also stage plays with shrill Indian voices over loudspeakers going on in the background, a result of bearing witness to Pondy’s drama festival. What a place Pondy is! 

After our hectic first day, we had a decent breakfast on our second day at another little art cafe. 

To unwind, we decided to spend the day at nearby Serenity Beach. While this beach is nothing to write home about, it was still nice to beat the heat and gave landlocked Kristin a little taste of the ocean. 

After playing in some waves and cooling down, we walked down the rest of the beach and dodged shady schoolboys and putrid green puddles. 

We had an early dinner at Surguru and then walked back in the town’s darkness, thanks to a power failure, to get ready for our respective night transportation. We waited around in the dark, hoping that there would soon be light. Tracy and I would be going to Madurai, a temple town in Tamil Nadu, while Kristin would be heading further west, all the way to Kerala state to a beachside town called Varkala. 

We said our temporary goodbyes in the light and Tracy and I made our way to the night bus. The company we used doubles as a shipping company and we waited for our bus in their sketchy storage depot. Unfortunately, the bus left too early for our portion of the journey, so after only five and a half hours we were already at our destination, leaving us at the side of the road in Madurai at 2:45am. This city is completely off the tourist map. In Tracy’s opinion, it is also the dirtiest, a town crawling with rats the size of cats and that which has dust literally everywhere, making it difficult to breathe in the 40 degree heat. 

Luckily, I had called a hotel in advance and they let us have our room upon our arrival. 

After our sleep, we had a rooftop breakfast and could see the massive Sri Meenakshi Temple complex in the distance. 

We decided to sign up for a tour, something we had never yet done, to see all the local sights in the minimum amount of time possible and for the cheapest price. The tour happened to be given in Tamil, but a man tried to translate what the guide was saying as best he could. As you can guess, this was an Indian tour and we were the only whities.

Our first stop was the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, built in 1636.

The building itself was incredibly opulent but I can’t tell you much more about it because we don’t speak Tamil. 

Tracy managed to get a mediocre henna job done in 30 seconds for around 30 cents while inside and was asked by numerous niqab wearing schoolgirls for selfies, so it was quite a productive tour! 

The guide had to personally come in and escort Tracy and I back to the bus because we overstayed our 20 minute time limit. 

Our next stop was the Mariamman Teppalkkulam Tank, which was built in 1646 and, while dry most of the year, provides a pretty beautiful cricket ground for locals in the interim. 

Most people didn’t get off the bus, but we ran off and took a few pictures before speeding to our next destination. 

Our next stop was at the Gandhi Memorial Museum, which contains a detailed historical account of the Indian independence struggle and sheds light on the man himself. 

For some bizarre reason, we were only given 15 minutes inside the museum, and, because of the rush, it was extremely difficult to get a grasp of any of the information that it presented. The highlight for most people is the bloodstained loincloth that Gandhi was assassinated in. 

Our next site involved a 40-minute drive out into the beautiful countryside to visit the Alagar Temple, possibly known as the Kallazhagar Temple. 

This temple was quite ornate and the Indian tourists looked really happy to be visiting. 

We were given 30 minutes inside, but Tracy and I weren’t allowed in the more sacred part so we finished our tour of it relatively quickly and hung out with the monkeys and puppies outside. 

After the 30 minutes was up, we drove up a winding road and stopped at a roadside temple known as the Palamudir Solai. What set this temple apart was that you had to walk through a large “purifying” puddle in order to enter the temple. 

We prayed in the temple that the puddle would not give us parasites (for Tracy, that would come later!) via our feet and we got back on the bus. 

By this point it was evening and the bus dropped us off a 10-minute walk from the Sri Meenakshi Temple, Madurai’s signature sight as well as is the pilgrimage site for the entire state. 

This temple was designed in 1560 and built during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak.

I had to buy yet another sarong because I wasn’t allowed to enter in shorts and I had to check in my camera so I couldn’t take any pictures. The dumbest thing was that mobile phone photography was still allowed. I was pretty pissed off about this. 

I wish I could have taken pictures because this temple was absolutely beautiful. Easily the most atmospheric and ornate that we had seen to date. It was also a massive structure, occupying six hectares. 

Once again, non-Hindus are restricted as to what they can visit, but we still got a sense of the spiritual importance of this magnificent temple. 

What also set this temple apart was that it had a market integrated into its structure, which also made it the nicest market we had seen to date. Damn camera ban! 

I could snap some pictures of the ornate towers on the outside, the highest measuring 50 meters, but that’s all I could do. I was informed that I could go to the rooftop of a nearby shop to get a nice panoramic view of the temple, but it was dark, and poorly lit, so I attempted to do neither.

We walked briskly back to the hotel and grabbed a quick bite to eat. We managed to reserve a lengthy non-AC sleeper train to meet Kristin in Varkala, Kerala, which would arrive the following morning. 

Our whirlwind tour of the three cities had come and gone rather quickly, but I’m still quite happy with what we did and saw. These towns aren’t really on the backpacker radar (except for the cult followers at Pondy/Auroville), but are still worth a visit if you are in southern India! 

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