We've gone from one extreme to the other; in Sri Lanka we were travelling very slowly (too slowly really but complicated visa issues made it necessary) whereas in India we are now blazing a trail of fire - 7 places in 11 days isn't bad going! Tamil Nadu is our first state - we'll be travelling west then north from here, hopefully visiting Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, before heading up to Nepal. As rules have changed when applying for an Indian visa outside your country of residence (we were expecting 6 months but were only allowed 3) we have a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short time...Tamil Nadu is all about the Hindu temples. Big, dark, crazy, spooky, wonderful temples. Despite the decline of religion in the west I can confidently report that Hinduism is alive and well in India. The temples, many of which are dedicated to Shiva, are packed full of pilgrims being blessed, making offerings and just generally depositing payments into the Bank of Karma. Filled with carvings (see the monkey god Hanuman in the image left), shrines, butter lamps, priests and idols they are almost like little cities in themselves; the bigger ones even have markets within the temple enclosure. All this splendid creepiness is contained within high red and white striped walls and entered through massive gopurams (gates) - hue pyramid-like things covered in brightly painted carvings of gods, demons and other miscellaneous personages. My favourite has to be the Sri Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai (read William Dalrymple's 'The Age of Kali' for a great description of it) but the Natraja (Dancing Shiva) temple in Chidambaram is a close second. What a difference from the bland and tepid Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka... Ever mindful of our own karma (we didn't undergo all that hardship to travel to and then circumnavigate Mount Kailash in 2004 for fun you know!) we've been blessed by temple elephants (and left with hair full of elephant jam), fed bananas to holy cows, dressed appropriately (something that seems to be beyond many visitors to India?!) and meekly subjected ourselves to those red dots they put on your forehead which frankly look really stupid if you're not a Hindu. Even with the best of intentions though, weakness is part of the human condition, and we just weren't up to the job of resisting those beef steaks in Pondicherry. Karmic retribution was swift in this case; within 24 hours Rich had a couple of bovine horns planted firmly on his backside when he failed to hop out of the way of a passing cow in Chidambaram ... No permanent damage done. Fancy French nosh aside (hey, it would be rude to pass up offerings like those of Pondi when in an old French colony) the main fare has been yummy South Indian banana leaf thalis. They really are served on a banana leaf - see evidence left. The local way is to eat with your right hand but not only is this very gooey and messy, I struggle to get the food in my mouth without smearing most of it all over my chin. More practise is required to perfect the technique - but I think I'll just stick with a spoon! Eating the local chow is the way forward budget wise. The average cost for a meal for 2 with a bottle of water is around Rs.150 (that's about £1.70). This includes seemingly unlimited top ups plus curd and desert. What an absolute bargain!
I'm constantly fascinated by the disparity in the cost of daily stuff in India. Whereas a basic hotel room is anything from £6 - £10 (more than I remember from previous visits to India), an 8 hour train journey in sleeper class with a bunk is around £1.80. If an 8 hour train journey at home costs £100 let's say, then a cheap hotel room would then be over £300, which is clearly ridiculous. The result is that I am stuck in this middle ground of being amazed at the value of some things and left wondering if I'm being ripped off for others. When 25% of Indians survive on under Rs.20 a day (that's 25p) and to upgrade your cable TV package to see ALL Premier League football matches for a month is under £1, a rickshaw ride of 75p for 2kms seems expensive.... Just can't figure it out.
India has always been a land of extremes of course, but some of the advertisements on TV beggar belief. Even with an expanding middle class who exactly is the advert for a £60,000 Audi aimed at? This changing India brings to mind the Cobra advert currently running on British TV - have you seen it? It features a group of ultra trendy but slightly alternative Indians on a train, including a kind of swami-like long haired dude and a pouty young woman in a short gauzy dress, all happily quaffing ice cold Cobra beers while they chug through the dusty Indian plains. Although I couldn't seriously believe Indian Railways would condone this kind of unseemly and avant-garde behavior from its patrons I was strangely relieved to find that the goings-on in your average train carriage are no different to 7 years ago - including signs prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on board. Suck on that Cobra girl - and if she's not careful she'll be looking at a penalty comparable to that of stopping the train without good reason (see picture above right); Rs.1000 (£11.50) or a year in jail...
It's all about the tripod! For me anyway. I've never been a confident portrait photographer and the lens I picked for this trip is not great for people shots in that its maximum aperture is f/4.0 when you really need something nearer to f/1.8 to get nice blurred backgrounds. I'm generally at my happiest standing behind the tripod, remote release cable in hand, snapping lovely views, but when travelling through Indian cities this is not always that easy to achieve. For a start, setting up the tripod on a crowded Indian street would draw a huge amount of attention, not to mention leading to a genuine risk of being either trampled by a cow or runover by a rickshaw. Tripods are forbidden at many historical sites, or permitted on payment of a large fee, which leaves the only option hand holding the camera (shock horror!). Inside dark places like temples this means ISOs of up to 1600, Image Stabilization notwithstanding, creating image noise that even an Adobe wallah (that's a pun on dhobi wallah by the way!) can't clean up. All this has led to a few 'ho-hums' and severe tripod deprivation.The image above is of the Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai at dusk taken from the roof of our hotel. We paid a premium for the room to get this view but it was the best around and sometimes you just have to cough up to get what you want...The image was taken at f/16 with a shutter speed of 15 secs - with beloved tripod of course.