The First Tale From Tamil Nadu – Chidambaram – February 2016

By Nick Goslett
Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram
Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

One year later…another Internet Cafe in the back streets of an Indian City, and they don’t get any smarter!I had a very enjoyable and successful ten days in Kovalam helping Sylvia and Lindsay with the Venkat Trust work. Two high spots: the Sports Day on Sunday when 260 of the kids we sponsor, managed by our 16 graduates, hopped and jumped and painted their way to glory and prizes; a Humanities Event in a hotel in Chennai where we invited about 50 people who had helped the Venkat Trust in the tremendous work they did during the devastating floods in December to thank them for what they did and to tell them more about the Trust (and you don’t have to be Mycroft to realise why!).

A low point for me was trying to get to the temples in Kanchipuram, not listening to The King (JR, who is the head Indian Trustee and President of the village and surrounding area) about how to get there but believing instead the Bus Controller, and most stupidly not seeing before I got half way and gave up that all the temples are closed between 12:30 and 4pm.

Nataraja Temple Water tank

So …. Monday morning I did take the advice of The King and with only one change of local buses was in Chidambaram in good time (about 4 1/2 hours). I am now very happy with bus stations where all is total chaos, many different bus operators (though think they are actually all Government) and not an Information Office in sight. The bus drivers are gold and know everything! At the changeover in Pondi I had time to spare: people get onto the bus, off the bus, back on then joined by wife and kids, and maybe granny or auntie, then they all disappear. This used to make me nervous but now I go with the flow, or rather I don’t… I just stay put! (A pretty boring journey since the land is completely flat and much of the time the roadside is a strip of typical Indian shops in various states of dilapidation.)I had been wondering why I chose to spend three nights in Chidambaram since apparently the only attraction is the Cosmic Dance temple dedicated to Siva (which is supposed to be pretty spectacular). However, it turned out better than I could have hoped for. I had spotted on Sunday that only 14 kms away is the second largest Mangrove Forest in the world, and a new sponsor who dropped in to see us last week and who, with his wife, would talk the back legs of a herd of donkeys, recommended a travel book about the temples of Tamil Nadu and the author spoke of one outside Chidambaram which is off the tourist map and a starter for what is to come, here in Chidambaram, in Madurai and in Rameswarem.


I went to see the Nataraja temple as soon as I had booked in. Thankfully, the front seat of the bus which I carefully selected was not mine for long when an elegant rotund smartly-dressed man came onto the bus, I was shooed elsewhere, a cloth was placed on his seat and he regally sat down. Thankfully, because the driver was so reckless that when he nearly took us over the edge of a bridge, even he seemed shocked and slowed to a crawl for the next quarter of a mile. My question is not why there are so many deaths on the Indian roads but why so few! On the way there we went through a large village with almost every shop making and selling rattan furniture (but a long way for you to go, Sylvia!). My bus fare was 9R (9p) and he gave me no change for a 10R note – seems like a good scam to me… and it has happened twice more already! They turn the music up really high on the bus maybe to calm our nerves!These Dravidian temples are very, very different from those I saw on my first trip through Karnataka and Rajasthan, and last year in Orissa and Khajuraho…and thus far…. The carving is much less subtle, they use a lot of colour which to me looks rather childish, and the men are all rotund, have handlebar moustaches and bulging eyes…but perhaps I will grow to like it (I hope so!) However, the architecture is impressive and I have only seen a tiddler thus far. Two pictures I hope to attach will give you a feel for the size, the style and the architecture, and the calm of the gorgeous (water) tank in the temple with its own beautiful cormorant drying her wings on the island.

The format of this and the other temples I will see is for there to be a tall pyramidal structures (the gopuras) forming the main gate(s) which tower over the town (and in general no building can be higher), and mark out the rectangle of the sacred area, then a vast open pillared hall and then within it gets darker and darker and smaller and smaller until you get to the God or Goddess in the middle, to which non-Hindus may or may not be allowed but perhaps rolled up notes may help. I got so caught up in the gloom and power in the middle that I lit eight candles which I dedicated to the health (this being a temple dedicated to the curing of ailments) of myself and all those I love.

This year no one understands any English which is a bit of a challenge, especially when coupled with head waggling which really can seem to be Yes or No. Frustrating but the approach must be “never give up”. Chance encounters with Indians may be unlikely! Sarah da Silva has encouraged me to find a cinema and see The Big Short (terrific book, by the way) but a film in English would be pointless here and I think the same will hold for the rest of the cities I will be visiting.

The Converted

One of my main joys in these travels is not knowing what might happen next – being in control but only just and happy to be lead off on tangents: will the bus actually get to the place I am going to get to? will there be one coming back? Will I meet an Indian to talk to … or even, this time, a tourist to talk to! Another joy is the colours and the elegance of the women no matter how poor they might be. And their teeth; always so sparkling white. I well remember the fishing village of Konark at five in the morning watching the villagers stroll around brushing their teeth for many minutes whilst dropping in for a chat with a neighbour. Another good thing is that knowing I will be writing these Tales I try to spend more time noticing what’s going on around me, not one of my strong points!I was standing at the bus stand at 8.30 Tuesday morning (having spotted that a woman has the flat combs I use) waiting for the bus to the Second Biggest Mangrove Forest in the world and got chatting to Alessandra from Italy, Magdalena from Chile and Sandra from Austria, three lovely bright girls in their early thirties who had met up in Esthell Village near Mamallapuram. We spent four wonderful hours together which had its moments. The rower, a weeny man called Davidstan, had his orders to row us to the beach where he would rest for an hour then row back but we wanted the backwaters and no beach. We also thought there would be many birds and I specifically asked for a man who knew his birds but he didn’t know an egret from a pond heron and was going to take us to the beach whatever we, the client, might want. When we said we would complain he said he would report the girls for not declaring they had cameras! Touché … Well … he did take us down one backwater, the total sum of birds was about seven species BUT the beach was blissful. We all swam in our undies on a clean shell-bestrewn beach with not a soul in sight. And rowing in the Forest was so calm, such a treat after the noise and rat race of the towns. The occasional fishing boat, usually with a man and his wife, laying out a net about two feet deep in a circle about 200m in diameter. We never did see if anyone caught anything. I think they are fishing for shrimps because I saw them drying by the road today. I took pity on Davidstan on the way back since he looked like he might not make it and much to my surprise he jumped at the idea of me rowing! He was forgiven and I gave him a nice tip. Philippa, you may hear from Sandra via me because she wants to write film scripts and loved the story about Little Ashes and how you got into the business. Alessandra and I may met again since we are going to the same places in the next two weeks.

Davidstan, our Mangrove Rower

Having seen the villages we went through to get to the Forest I yearned to hire a bike the next day. Chidambaram is not set up for tourists and there are no bikes for hire. However, such a trifle need not be an obstacle. I eventually persuaded the owner of a fishing tackle shop to lend me his daughter’s bike for a day for free (but of course I will make a gift to his daughter). Such lovely people. This experience sums up why I love being here. (It’s even got a good saddle which will be a luxury! )And now I am a paid-up missionary! I met Dominic as I checked in, a very good looking 6’5″ Brit (with an equally gorgeous 6′ wife of a month, Thea). He is working as a missionary with six others and having gathered quite quickly that I had been doing charity work in Kovalam he invited me along on Tuesday evening for one of the sessions they hold each night at a village where converts can be expected. Well, 5.30 pm and I am the eighth person in the group and realise that to be fair to them I must not rock any boats but play along where reasonable. They are all lovely people, but they are all Pentecostal and creationists and the experience was one I shall not forget in a hurry. We went to a village where two years ago there had been very few Christians but this time, from a village size of 1,600, there must have been 500 women, men and children. I was up on the stage with the missionaries. It started with songs and chants and hand clapping and waving and I was fine with that and joined in with gusto. Then the gorgeous Thea told the story of her conversion, then James said that this was a Healing Crusade (starting to get nervous) and told tales of curing a woman last year who was blind and half deaf and after the laying on of hands was neither … and then Dominic got to work. Very impressive, very disturbing. They want to convert the “heathens” to the one and only true God and Jesus (hallelujah) who died to save us all. Hail and brimstone, sins and hell; the works. They called for all who had tried to commit suicide to come forward, those who had a relation with the devil inside them, bereaved people, … and then they went down amongst them and laid hands on heads. (Several came my way for that but I gently pointed them to one of the Magnificent Seven and talked to some Hindu boys (who eat beef which surprised me). After the event we were given a rather nice curry in the church. Some of the Seven asked me what I thought of the experience but I thought it best just to say it was an experience and leave it at that. Whilst peddling around today I have been trying to work out why I found the latter parts of the meeting so disturbing and have not really sorted it all out yet. I dislike the definitiveness of their belief and desire to convert others who have perfectly good made-up Gods of their own; I dislike the educational side because they will encourage creationism. But it certainly was an experience I shall remember for a very long time.

Bicycle Repair Man

I have discovered the joy of BBC downloads since the room does not have wi-fi.I am off for a bit to see if I can get my ears sorted after the salt water got at them so that I cannot use my hearing aids, and will be back to complete the journey.

Success. Charming nurses (though she thought my pulse was 78 and it was 58 and I looked at a watch and she didn’t) and superb doctor who was just as good as my guy at the Sussex General who I see every four months.

8.45am and the bike is ready. Rush hour. Some front brakes; no back ones at all! I cycle slowly and carefully and quite soon I turn off the main road towards the Mangrove Forest 14km away. It was such a lovely six hours. After stopping in two villages I eventually found a guy with new brake pads so was up to about 40pc breaking ability. Several miles later I arrived at a Krishna festival just as it was ending and was soon surrounded by an extended family some of whom spoke a bit of English and one of whom was a lovely 28 year old computer science grad working for Tata in Chennai currently on a project for Bloomberg and who spoke very good English. Great stuff! She asked me to visit her home but it was 20 minutes away and I explained that I was on a bike….which I then discovered had a puncture hence my Facebook entry today! I spent time with another family by a pond having three Tamil lessons: How are you?; I am well; My name is Nick. Apparently my accent was good but I could not remember any of them. Much laughter! The village has 5,000 hectares of rice which seems a lot and the crop this year is good.

Magdalena, Sandra and Alessandra on the boat

Water Lilies


When I finally got back (I reckon about 35km) the kind man would not accept any money even for his daughter so the trip cost me 20p for the brake pads and 20p for the puncture mending! Tomorrow I must be careful of my forehead which is a bit sore and may need to cover my forearms. I am taking aspirin. I took 40 pens but no one asked for one and when I asked they said No. Very odd!This evening I went to the temple here which makes Monday’s seem like a tiddler and Siva knows what I will make of the one at Madurai which dwarfs this one. I really don’t like the painted Gods and Goddesses. The temple is vast with many colonnades, sometimes one or even two on top of the lower one. Inside it seems to me to be a cross between the Temple of Doom and the place where they find the crashed Alien: thousands of pillars mostly with carvings in a shocking state of repair; incredibly gloomy but spiritual. I have decided that I will keep lighting the ghee candles in each of these massive temples and pondering my health and that of others whilst I do it for it can do no harm and the universe is a mysterious place. At 18:10 when I was looking up what exactly is a Puja, all hell broke loose with little bells being crashed, big bells being pulled and two men on the drums flailing at them in any old time signature. People rushed to the Holy of Holies, as did I, to see many candles being waved about and extinguished. The Hindus take it all very seriously.

And now my First Tale is ended and I will partake of a curry which will be of a reasonably poor standard but will be the best there is in this town.

I hope you are enjoying being back with me. I am!
Many hugs from India

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