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An epic BMW ride through southern India

Meenakshi Temple is one huge celebration in granite. With origins in millennia, it lords the sexual union of Shiva and reincarnation of his wife, Meenakshi. A marriage of gargantuan effort in sculptured stone and brick, symbolizes their cosmic betrothal. This vast impregnable structure occupies nearly forty acres. Slender, almost Mayan pyramidal towers, nearly two hundred feet high, give access at the cardinal points through lofty spiked doors, impervious as a port cullis. They are completely embellished with sculpture from the Hindu pantheon and mirror the heavenly realm. At the core of this effective fortification is fifteen acres of labyrinthine sanctity, the temple complex. It needs to be vast. The shear number of devotees coming from all over the south would pack an average sports stadium. There is a continuous flow and bustle of pilgrims, with men being bare chested, often daubed with holy ash on their torsos. Some show the tell tale mark of a Shivite with red and white bars across their foreheads. Women in gay sarees now rather compliment their decorated husbands and devotees with small baskets of fruit and flowers make offerings, a puja, to their favourite deity. The principle shrines are to Meenakshi and Shiva, but there are literally dozens of lesser and obscure incarnations which have their niche. All is set within rather dank and dim pillared halls which would have originally been lit with hundreds of coconut lamps. Now neon guides the way. To an initiate, the atmosphere feels almost ominous rather than omnipresent. Internally there is not that uplifting height drawing you up to your maker. It is heavy and grounded, dominant. It is the people, the smell and the sculpture which counter this foreboding. All the devotees are buzzing like bees around their favourite honey pot . They come to pray for health, prosperity and progeny. To be married in Meenakshi is definitely auspicious and propitious. The smell is a thick blend of coconut oil smoke from sanctum recesses and sandalwood incense. Jasmine is everywhere entwined in the long thick black locks of the Tamil women and girls. The sculpture is unmissable. Many of the pillars and entrances to shrines, even statues holding oil lamps, are of the female form. Nubile, narrow waisted ladies, sport rounded and voluptuous breasts, somewhat polished by centuries’ caress. They would seem to celebrate the female form and desire. The probability unknown to most, is that these erotic forms are symbolic. They hold a secret that may have been handed down from ancient worship of the cow. Remember when Moses was in the desert ? He got rather miffed when his acolytes melted down their gold and cast a calf. Well, these ladies possibly represent in their breasts the bulbous forehead of a beneficent bovine, and their slender waist that portion of its muzzle. In a time when the written word was insecure or at risk from degradation, it’s amazing to ponder that information could have been, encoded, encapsulated in a piece of sculpture.

It was the sentinel towers, unique in Dravidian architecture, which most caught my admiration. They were towers of babel with a Disney flair. From small apertures amidst the riot of deities, demons and devadasis, I could judge that the ‘Gopurams’ were floored on many levels. The prospect of getting up on to a roof and away from the thronging penitents around me, was just too tempting. Ordinarily access is off limits, but a discreet bribe to a sleepy temple guard had us past his post and through a secretive doorway in the bowels of the main tower. A large ante room gave way in the gloom to an unlit stone staircase. Up we crept to the next level, and, in the half light, an empty stone floor with just remnants of chaff and husk. Our cautious steps unsettled the dust of harvests past, and shards of light piercing the cavernous space were infused with clouds of golden particles. A further climb, another empty floor, but accompanied by that acrid smell of bats, and in the dim light we could see dozens clinging to the timbered ceiling of the next level. Perhaps all these floors served as a granary in the days of marauding kings and Islamic conquistadores. Now the stairs were of knarled wood, each tread worn and rounded by infinite steps, and bleached by the passage of time. Each floor revealed emptiness, more guano, and a host of pigeons squabbling about amidst their sleepy, silky black neighbours. Peering through a window, its shutters long gone, we could look down and more appreciate the intricacy and detail of the temple frieze. No space had missed the mason’s art. It was an orgy of work in the vertical plane. Were anybody to have looked up, we would have appeared very strange and foreign gargoyles, a red bearded man and his fair skinned consort! The last and now rickety steps led out on to the roof with an invitingly open hatch. From the realms of the Gods we had the most panoramic view of the temple and far beyond to the outskirts and mid day haze. Below us was a seething sea of humanity which for a while we would have to again endure. For the moment it was good to be detached from all this mayhem. We would head for the ghats again and serenity.

Madurai proved to be a bench mark for a typical city of the plains. Where in history such places were well planned, now the burgeoning population and unfettered building , the clash of modernity with an agricultural past, and the strained intermittent utilities have brought all to a state of risible collapse. Picking our way back to the hotel it was a hop scotch of broken and missing drain covers. They are of cast, ill fitting concrete, and form a continuous procession roofing over a culvert of slow moving sewage below. Where broken, they are choked with street vendors’ debris and provide easy bolt holes for a rat population and cockroach numbers exceeding the locals! The stifling heat conspires to ferment this obnoxious blend of waste and excrement producing an odour which must be unique to civic India. It is incredible. It is unbelievable that some sort of order and improvement could not be achieved. The masses would appear to have deliquesced into a state of total apathy, acceptance, and hold that there is some strange security in number. I could walk through all this and be shocked, or laugh at a degree of ineptitude I had never witnessed before. I now knew more so, that my birth was a lucky one. My personal battle was to conjure a mood of compassion for these blind souls and not feel smug. Maybe I might just help a few someday to alleviate my guilt.

We had stayed in a tolerable place. The bed sheets did not show linear spots of blood, the calling card of a bed bug, and with the fan full on we could scatter the mosquitoes. The shower worked if you unscrewed the blocked rose, and a few buckets of water slewshed around and down the squat loo had it in crappable order. The trick of use is to try and rest your armpits on your knees. A bit of bathroom yoga and your alimentary tract is ready for the whoosh. A regular stool here is a foreign body, too! Within this indigenous bathroom regime of haphazard plumbing and erratic water supply, there is of course, no toilet paper. With jug in right hand and a new contorted asana, your left hand, which before may have only known more pleasuring past times in that most private of places, gets personal with your last alternative. As for the cause of this new habit, we had eaten pretty well too. The dosas, purees and lassi were very good in the eatery attached to the rooms. We were ready for a renewed onslaught and there remained one last task, a wash and brush up for the bike.

Down the street was a rickshaw service place and a washing bay. The owner spoke a little English, and was, as most mechanic types, confused at the lack of a rear chain and weird engine. Explanations and niceties over, he proudly commissioned three filthy and oil spattered urchins to set too on the bike. It was a Fagan establishment but without a Nancy. Before I could say ‘no!’ my front and rear wheels had been sprayed with diesel. It would make for interesting brakes or lack of! In fact in shocked horror and muttered expletives I watched while the whole machine was liberally coated. I was gleefully assured that all would be well. It was. The diesel was lathered off with soap solution, a rinse, and a blow off with compressed air. My faithful machine looked like new and for an old model really rather immaculate. As a treat for the boys I took them ‘four up’ down the alley and back. There was almost room on the seat to spare.

North west of Madurai, off the Dindigul road, and way up in the Western Ghats lies the lesser hill station of Kodaikanal. Hill stations throughout India were the summer bastions of the Raj. At elevations exceeding six thousand feet they could be twelve or more degrees cooler than the plains. They were often ‘discovered’ by wily Scots who knew a beautiful place when they saw it. Those old timers may have been inspired by tea planting prospects, naturalist talent, and adventurism, but those cool hideaways were soon exploited by the British administration who chose to up stick their bureaucratic engines and move to the hills for the dry season. With verandahed bungalows, rose gardens and lawns, they were as near to England as you could get in India. We were travelling there sitting on sixty horse power for maybe a four hour ride. The Burra Sahibs, Sahibs and Memsahibs of earlier times made the trek by horse, pony and mule. It would have been a gruelling journey over days with no metalled roads and just dusty tracks.

There is no sign post for the turn to Kodaikanal. For most there is no need as lives are lived within very limited loci. With the Raj history, hill stations have a small fixed population and a seasonal influx as resort for the wealthy, and increasingly, a more solvent middle class. From our simple and only partly believable local map, I judged that our turn should come up after about half an hour’s drive. Missing it would waste time and more importantly petrol. This amber nectar was not readily available outside large towns and only occasionally to be had from black market vendors who cut it with kerosene.

Sure enough our marker came up. It was the first turn we had seen in fifty clicks, and confirmed by a chai shack cum puncture wallah set up under a ubiquitous banyan. We were making good time and I was keen to get through all the hill climbing by sunset to fully enjoy the ride and it would be far safer. Indian truck drivers have the retina of an owl and don’t always use headlights. We were on the flat for a while and this lesser road, a state highway, was strafed with potholes. It was tempting to ride on the dirt but at risk of hoof nails we weaved through as best we could, occasionally bottoming the suspension hard if I had a lapse of concentration. It was scrubby and barren land, devoid of farmsteads and villages.

Out of the afternoon haze the ghats made their appearance. With the sun in the west they had a dark and menacing silhouette. ‘Here be tiggers and heffalumps!’. With a profile akin to an erratic currency graph they rise steeply out of the Deccan by about six thousand feet, and like so many things in India, the effect is dramatic and immediate. As we climbed higher the road got better and the vegetation changed. Small settlements with mango, bananas and a little coffee came along by the way. Back came the colour of bougainvillea and hibiscus. Often the road would follow the contour of the hills and it was level going. It was possible to see the concave bends at a distance and keep up quite a lick of speed. At other times there were steep sections with tight hairpins and a lot of loose gravel. The middle way was fine and you could set up a tight line powering out to pick the bike up. As long as you didn’t meet a bus it was great fun, and with the cooler air the engine was performing well, and my feet, remember them? They were having a holiday too!

The halfway stop is a practical necessity for most. All the bumps and bends on the way up, have made many holiday makers and locals very sick. Car doors and bus panels were streaked with vomit in different shades of dal. The Mysore variety which is orange and mung, green, must have been rather popular. Our overtaking was always done with trepidation and caution, and as wide as the road would allow. Sometimes on a steep section there would be a convoy scenario. Going by them was a Jackson Pollock moment . The long climb has taxed engines hard, radiators are boiling, and the cars, trucks, and buses, stand in serried ranks like steaming leviathans. It’s all very good for business. Perched on a cliff edge is a line of fruit stalls, cool drinks and chai, omelettes and chappatti. We too were in need of a break. Bums get sore and the tendons around my knees were stressed and fatigued by repeated gear changes. With hundreds of corners and eight changes through a tight bend, that’s thousands of flexures in the course of a few hours.

The discomfort of all this was more than offset by the grandeur and raw beauty of these hills. The greatest pleasure was in uncertainty. Although we would nominate a daily goal, the target was fluid and we never knew when the day closed where we would next eat, sleep, or defecate. Only the sunset was predictable. Having learnt painfully from my past assumptions, this free mindset paid huge dividends and the journey, the cause, was all that mattered. Perhaps I was selfish. At heart Paula craved for order, sure emotion and charted territory. I had not provided for this in the past and now she was a pillion, a passenger. Passengers rarely connect with the pilot or helmsman, and are not masters of their own destiny. They are obliged to assume that their destination is assured. For her it was a confusing paradox which was not shared.

From the junction at Perumulumalai is a hard turn to port, and the steep tack to Kodi really begins. Small hill country estates have their fruit stalls lining the road and pretty Tamil girls who speak English as their grandmother ayas may have done, hawk tree tomatoes, passion fruit, rather pappy Golden Delicious and tangerines. Milled into the mountainside the trail winds up through cascading streams and a terminal drop down to the valley floor below. The ascent is so rapid that vegetation changes with nearly every bend. Through a two thousand feet climb tropical hardwood with a dense lush under story merges through eucalyptus to pine, macrocarpa and cedar. At six thousand the mountains open up to grassy downs with mixed forest on their sheltered flanks like a friar’s pate. With the sun well on its way to Saudi, the light was getting poor and the temperature had crashed down to about fifteen centigrade. There was a wonderful smell of aromatic wood smoke that reminded me of home, and in the twilight dim yellow glows from the windows of red roofed bungalows scattered around the hills. It was a sprawling place where view took precedence over accessibility. We had heard about a little place up near the old church and there we headed. In fact it was a race against the still falling temperature. We were in light clothing and now both shivering!

Winter is the quiet time in the hill stations and we found ‘Villa Retreat’ completely empty. At the beginning of ‘Coaker’s walk’, it is the quintessential ‘bungla’, the mother of all bungalows. Built in ashlar grey stone, it has a double bayed verandahed frontage, central glazed entrance portico and red corrugated iron roof pierced by a number of little chimneys which vent from the sides. The chimney tops are capped with red painted tin pyramids to keep the rain out but which are removable for sweeping. All very well executed and very Victorian, a jewel of a past crown.

A reluctant chowkidar appeared wrapped in a blanket and wearing a canvas deerstalker. We negotiated the choicest room. Themed on the opulent guest houses, our ‘room’ was a tiny apartment with sitting room and bedroom, both with fireplaces, and a lean to bathroom off the back. It was cosy like our old derelict squat in Hindhead had been, and probably of similar vintage. 1841 was a good year. It was a great find and similarly cold. Buckets of hot water would be available in the morning and firewood was Rs 25 a bundle. We bought two. There was no food and the power was off. I did spy some familiar candles though!

Wrapped in blankets which seemed the appropriate way, we walked briskly down past the church into the town proper. It was good to free up seized limbs and for a while we skipped arm in arm just to get our circulation going. Few people were around and those we saw were equally shrouded and mittened. Our ‘bible’, the Lonely Planet, had said that ‘Tibetan Brothers’ was a good restaurant. We had never met a Tibetan and so that was a clincher. It was an upstairs boutique kind of place with just a few benches and tables; the walls were bedecked with posters of the Potala at Lhasa and a smiling Dalai Llama. A small shrine near the door had again his photo above a Buddha, two oil lamps and burning incense. The lone waiter was charming and gentle. The overly extensive menu, common to most tourist oriented establishments, had the usual and endless permutations of what you could do with an egg, onion or potato. It was the Tibetan section that caught my eye. Thugpa, Gyathuk, Mutton Momos and Tibetan Tea. We agreed on a plate of each and some tea. It was good to have a change from the slop of the plains but it was still sloppy, in a noodley, soupey and dumpling kind of way. The momos were especially good. The tea was weird. It is made from black tea, near rancid butter, and salt. The ingredients are mixed in a gadget approximating to an oversize bicycle pump. Out is poured a fatty emulsion which separates and curdles in your cup as you dare to try it. The taste defies description but the reaction is similar to the first time you may have tried mustard or mushrooms. It would be an acquired, adult taste! We talked with our host about Tibet and China. His family were refugees and camped in Mysore. Here in the hills was the nearest he could get to the cool altitude of his himalayan plateau. He told of a Tibetan saying: ‘Over the highest pass either comes your best friend or greatest enemy’. Unfortunately for him, it had been the Chinese. He lived in hope for his homeland. We told him of our journey, he understood the distance, and wished for both of us a safe return.

Back outside, the temperature had plummeted and the streets were empty. I had noticed that in rural India quite practically they adopt a dawn to dusk regime. For most, without bathrooms, they get the cover of darkness at either end of the day for major ablutions, and still get eight hours sleep. With our modernity and power on tap we burn the candle at both ends and just get knackered. Perhaps like the wise ox they have set a practical pace after all. Ideally we would have raced back to the room but the combination of cold and altitude was now really noticeable. It had been downhill going out but our return was a geriatric stagger.

Out on the promontory where this bungalow had been built, the evening sky was one huge hemispherical orb. With little light or dust pollution there were far more stars than the coast and a new crescent moon lay on its back like an Arab dhow, punctuated by a lone star just above it. Only then did it click with the symbol of Islam and ‘Catch Bull at Four’. Strange that Lord Shiva wears a crescent on his forehead and of course stranger still, that there is argument for the Kaaba being a Hindu temple to Mahadevi, Shiva’s consort.

Far, far in the distance, and a long way down, the lights of some city tinkled in the blackness. We had traded shambles for shivers but it didn’t take long before we had a good blaze going and hit the sack under a pile of blankets supplemented with all from the vacant room next door.

We woke late to shrill calls of alien birdsong and an English summer morning. The clipped lawn, roses and white painted picket fence, the grey of the terrace walls and steps, could have been up on Windermere. It was so refreshing from the plains. In the sun it was warm enough for a T shirt, but the air had that crisp clean quality that only elevation provides. The only indication of India was a small shrine and statue of Ganesh built in to the garden wall and facing east to greet the new day as we were. Someone had placed some fresh flowers there. A breakfast of boiled eggs and toast arrived with two buckets of hot water. The kitchen fire had been put to optimum use and the delight of a four minute egg apparently lost after partition. It would be cold toast or tepid water. We took the toast warm on the lawn table,and peeled and cut our eggs into finger burning slices. Altitude was no barrier to ineptitude.

Altitude did seem though, to be a great barrier against infection which thrived on sweaty humid wounds. My toes and elbows were really looking better with crusty brown scabs which weren’t red around the edges. There had been no more volcanic activity of rupture and yellow larva. It was a great relief and lifted my spirits. To survive India for any length of time, I was learning that you had to adopt a cheerful disposition and a neutral acceptance of all around; being a bit overweight at the beginning of a trip wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Without the first two attributes you are surely doomed and will miss out on a lot. My God! I was going a little ‘Indian’!

We chose to spend another day and lazily pootled around the town. It was just pleasant to drive around without all that gear and be an observer. I had forgotten what a nimble bike it was. The bazaar was uncrowded and different with its stalls of plastic anoraks, woolly jumpers and balaclavas. Apricot jam, honey and real bread, even cheese, was available; for the tourists, little bottles of eucalyptus oil, peanuts roasted in sand over a brazier, and hill country coffee. All the vegetables, huge white glistening cauliflower, cabbages, carrots and potatoes, looked so fresh, unlike the limp and flaccid goods of the plain which have endured a day’s truck ride down into the heat. Nosing around by a provision shop that was full of sacks of cattle feed and fertilizer, rope, and rat traps in sizes from herbivorous to carnivorous, I saw the plastic containers with that infamous triad of letters DDT. No wonder the veg was bug free and the locals a little Appalachian.

Many who come up to Kodi are honeymooners, they promenade, and new brides can always be identified by the intricate henna work, mehendi, on their hands and feet. Their degree of proximity gives away whether the marriage was arranged or an elopement. Without mehendi and without accompanying children, chances are they’re from Bangalore and having a rampant weekend. I was having none of that of course. A few couples come up to Kodi, to make love, and like butterflies in post coital ecstasy, die. They take their last walk arm in arm up to suicide point in the early morning. There, aglow, and still warm from their passions, they scratch their names in the rock, sealing their union in stone, and leap to eternity. For fifteen seconds they are a peregrine pair. What madness the rule of culture and creed!

It was not too different at the old church near our room. In the late afternoon we strolled around the graveyard just able through the lichen to make out the inscriptions on earlier headstones. There was a healthy compliment of those who had had a good innings, choosing to retire in the hills and never see home again. There was also a disturbing lesser number of young women in their twenties and graves of babies. Presumably they had died in childbirth or of malaria. In the nineteenth century it was common for frail English roses to come out at parent’s request to be matched with some young officer of prospects. The sea passage under sail must have been arduous enough let alone the days of journeying by tonga or pony when they arrived. Their corseted dress code was way impractical for the climate and their constitution overly refined. There was not that much choice in the matter, and dowry, a ‘marriage settlement’ was commonplace. This all, or as not at suicide point, to maintain the status quo. We may have moved on domestically but perhaps more devious and dastardly alliances are afoot?

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