The Sixth Tale from Tamil Nadu – Last Days at Kodaikanal and the Ashram and Rameshwaram

By Nick Goslett
A late lunch after golf
A late lunch after golf

The sun has risen, a lovely yoga teacher is leading about six people on Sun Salutations and I have had my last coffee and omelette outside my dear Room 6. I have had a very happy stay here (the longest ever in one place I think) and my bargained-for extra mattress provided me with my most comfortable travelling bed yet.

The man who makes the breakfast has extraordinary eyes which quite literally vanish backwards into his cranium and at that point I have no idea if he can see me or not. Last night was payday which means alcohol and his eyes became mesmerising and then I met the trekking guide driving down to the town and he was most certainly in no state to drive and he started and stalled the car several times after wishing me a fond farewell. God help those on the Munnar trek with him the next day!

I called the Kodai Club wondering about a game of bridge but “I am sorry good sir but bridge does not start until March”. Never give up: one journey I will find a bridge four!

Yoga at sunrise

Yesterday, Taxi-John picked me up at 7.30 sharp and I was early enough to have a coffee and some biscuits in the market before strolling up to the golf club. A very pleasant four ball with three Indian Rich Men; my partner, Ranish, thought everything hilarious. I was somewhat disconcerted at talk of 300 bucks on the game until I established that a buck is a rupee. This time I had a good set of clubs but it didn’t help my game and I lost three pounds; worth it for the company and the course. They all conversed in English.

I ambled back through the villages, had a late lunch, splashed out on a visit to the wax works museum, tracked all the way round by a very old local who spoke no English so either thought it was so wonderful to have a visitor that he would stick with me, or making sure I didn’t run off with one of the models. A few exhibits of gurus, a couple of Gods, some of Jesus and the Supper; and of course Gandhi. Just about worth the 30p.


I had seen a rather nice waterfall – Silver Cascades – on my journey back from the Peak and with time to spare thought that a 5km stroll down the mountain would be enjoyable (in the knowledge that I could get a bus back). And so it proved to be. Kodai stretches those 5km down the mountainside and seems like lots of little villages gradually being connected up. Each “village” will have its collection of little shops each which sell exactly the same things: crisps and sweeties and such like. The population in the latest Lonely Planet is given as 36,500 and the same in Wikipedia but Aftab reckons 100,000. There are a very large number of builders from other parts of India and they don’t speak the language and don’t fit in. The surprise to me was no unpleasant smells at all; and the number of churches and lack of temples. With the help of locals and their short cuts, we put Google Maps’ directions to shame. At the waterfall I bought a sweetcorn which proved to be the best so far …. and I reckon the monkey which stole it when I put it down to photograph an Indian couple thought so too! There was the occasional enormous explosion set off by the fruit stall holders to scare away the monkeys but my oh my they are observant and choose their moments cleverly! Again it was end of school time and this lot we even weenier girls but the satchels were the same size and sometimes bigger than their top half. Indian girls are adorable.

Watching for the monkeys

I visited Aftab at his shop to make a couple of purchases and we ended up chatting for a long time. This guy is seriously clever: in 2000 he prepared by himself a complete action plan for the development of Kodai which was met with much approval but got bogged down in politics; he used maths to redesign the looms for making the shawls in Kashmir; he is bang up to date with what’s happening in particle physics and cosmology; her wants to make all the taxis electric with power points all over the town. Frustrated man; lovely children.

And with a beef curry and jeera rice and a stroll at midnight on the yoga lawn under the stars, so ended another good day.

and the cook

There are no policemen in Kodai, but perhaps Taxi-John’s English was misleading me!

To take the edge off the steep hairpin bend journey down to the plain I listened to Schubert’s Quintet in C and Miles Davis Kind of Blue: guaranteed to soothe anyone’s nerves. The bus driver only used his horn when necessary. I would like to see a study of how long the journey takes on average for a manic hooter and a driver like today’s.

Perhaps I was ripped off again: the tuk-tuk man said there were no more 23 buses to the Sivananda Ashram today so I needed to take a tuk-tuk, 40km for 600 (£6). Google Maps showed it to be only 23km. It passed xx quickly enough. When I gave him the 600 he had the gall to ask for more saying how far it was!

Reception didn’t open until 6.30 so having no clue as to what was going on I went to my first lecture given by an Indian who chuckled a lot and has spent the last 23 years in a cave. My hearing aids not working well is not helping but I have to say that I learnt very little apart from the value of breathing. A dog was taunted in the room by four monkeys (which the swami thought excellent since we should not be distracted by such minor irritations! Then straight away into two hours of yoga (intermediate which is a bit of a struggle with my dodgy knees), silent dinner (cross-legged again) and at last reception where I managed to get a double room (I thought I had bought the whole room but am sharing with an Italian who is on a month’s training course). Finally a ninety minute meditation and chanting session (hell!) until 9.30, a quick shower and lights out at ten. A little owl joins us each night.

My partner Ranish on the 1st tee at the Kodaikanal golf course

You may gave gathered that it is not going well … but it gets better! The discomfort of my knees and ankle bones makes the talk and meditation sessions hell and my hearing problems don’t help. (I must sit at the front.) Access to the Internet in my room is impossible making for a long night. As yet I have not had time to make any friends. It is 5.19 am and the day starts in eleven minutes and I cannot say that I view it with eagerness. I shall do my best to keep an open mind. I attach the mandatory daily boot-camp schedule.

Probably only Philippa of the people who get my Tales has been to an Ashram: this should demystify it. There are about 100 of us here with 45 on a month’s training course. About one third are Indian. Many have never done yoga before. There are two classes: beginners and intermediates. I have gone for the latter because I have done yoga for years: I can just keep up….. but only just! I am usually the only male with about fifteen females. There is one large open building where we attend the morning and evening meditation (I have sneaked an illegal photo), chants and talk from a woman who speaks very quietly and laughs at her jokes which no one else finds funny. There is another large enclosed thatched building for our class, another for the beginners and a dining hall. The gardens and buildings are all lovely. There are Men’s dorms and Women’s dorms and some single and double rooms. Ages vary enormously but I fancy I am the oldest. Everyone is very friendly and it’s easy to talk to people. There is wi-fi from 6.30pm for one hour, the speed is paralytic and at present eight of us are crouched outside the Library trying to use it! Even normal data reception is dreadful.

Mary-Anne and Ria coming back from the beach

This morning started with a bell at 5.30am. Into the large open building for 30 minutes of meditation, 30 minutes of chanting and that woman mumbling again for another 30 minutes. There is a book of the chants and usually they tell us which one but what the words mean I have no idea. 7.30 is tea, good strong builders’ stuff and one can meet and chat to people. Then 8am is yoga for two hours followed by brunch. Apparently today’s was special but only because the trainees were doing something special and had to have special rice. It was the worst meal since my dreadful camel driver’s meals in the desert in Jaisalmer. Meals are taken in the dining room where we all sit cross-legged in silence and people come round with buckets serving the day’s delights. So we are now at about 10.30. At eleven we report for Karma Yoga which is where everyone gets allocated a domestic task: mine was to clean the communal showers and sweep outside the communal toilets.

There was a special five day course of one hour lectures at noon on public speaking and breathing and because my breathing was a bit affected by Kodaikanal at 7,000 ft I went. One and a half hours of the most dreadful twaddle. There is a German mid twenties guy who is a scientist and doing yoga for the first time and he is daring (rude?) enough to tell her what he thought. Thirty minute break and a mandatory lecture by that same man who had been in the cave. The German gave him a hard time and quite right because I thought it drivel. We can both agree that yoga almost certainly produces beneficial effects on the body and mind, as does chanting but these are physiological effects and we cannot see the need for tying in the mumbo jumbo of God and spirits. Anyway, it is not my cup of tea yet! A short fifteen minute break for tea then two more hours of yoga, 90 minutes for chat and the wi-fi then finish off with 90 minutes of meditation, chants and that wretched man from the cave! Well, after two hours of being very uncomfortable, two of the 50-year olds I hang out with persuaded me to go on a trip the next day to Rameswaram (Friday is the day when you are allowed out): it sounded fun, Rameswaram had been on my original itinerary and no sitting cross-legged for a whole day!

I was really enjoying that sweetcorn

The Boot Camp Schedule

Taking an unusual bus route

The alarm went at 4.30 am and after a hot black tea 12 of us were on the way. Four hour drive with a stop for breakfast. I settled down to sleep. This is not the Hindu way, which is to chant, starting with a jolly one about Ganesh. Ria said that she saw me put my earphones in my ears very quickly. The chanting went on for 10 minutes and I did wonder whether it would last the whole journey but thankfully they ran out of steam. I caught up with two days of the Archers, slept a bit then chatted to Venkat who made enough money in Silicon Valley to return to India and drift. He is doing the Teacher Training Course but does know what he will do. He thinks Modi is great for the country and that the people complaining are doing so because they are no longer able to have the influence or power they formerly had. The look on his face when he spoke was quite ‘fundamental’.I am glad that I struck Rameswaram from my itinerary: it was worth a day but no more. We started with a swim in our clothes in the public area near the Rama Temple and we stayed in these clothes, with a change in a plastic bag, for now we went into the Temple and had buckets of water poured over us from 22 wells all round the temple, each of which purported to have water from one of the holy rivers. Amusing but like being in a theme park. We changed into dry clothes and were whisked through the temple including the two inner temples where non-Hindus were allowed. To get the red spot on the forehead they demanded money with menaces. No time for candles. No decent columns; a few nice ceilings. Not an inspiring temple.

Fishing boats at Rameswaram

Aftab and his family in his shop

A typical Indian stall

Lunch was good then we drove to a beach using a 4-wheel drive machine to get through the sand and water which was a bit mystifying because there appeared to be a perfectly good road all the way to the beach. A few birds including Black Kites, Sea Eagles, lots of Little Egrets and some cormorants. No coffee!!…but later a lady who I had asked appeared with thermos that had hot coffee, disguised as sugar but good all the same.

The drive back was interspersed with a delicious meal at local veggie restaurant. The journey sped by as Ria and I talked non-stop about anything and everything. She has been travelling since October (escaping!) and we discussed at length what we get out of our journeys.

And so to bed at 10.30 after a happy day.

Many hot hugs from India


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