Monday, January 19, 2009

Pongal fever

In Trichy we engage in 'hearty discussion' with an unfriendly hotel manager who insists we pay in advance for our room. We hate paying in advance but after looking at our alternatives we give in, only to discover cockroaches scuttling about the room within twenty minutes of arrival. So, after further 'hearty discussion' we finally manage to get a full refund and relocate to a nearby hotel where the cockroaches are far more friendly. The town is relatively quiet - many shops closed for the beginning of the Pongal festival - but there's some life in the bazaar and at the Rock Fort Temple, which unfortunately is not a temple to French cheese, but is a temple that looks like a fort that sits on a rock overlooking the city. From the top we can see boys flying kites from the roofs of the houses below. We also visit another temple, of the kitsch variety, which is overrun with the faithful. It's mildly claustrophobic getting caught in a crowd in India, so we don't hang around too long.
We catch a night train to Mysore in the next state, where Pongal is not a holiday. ( We soon learn that many Tamils have the same idea.) Our comfy three - tier AC 'compartment' is shared with a family and a friend who have been on a Christian pilgrimage from Goa to a church in Tamil Nadu.
We're riding in relative comfort here - judging from the horror stories told by others travelling in non-AC standard sleeper class. For a start, whole families are not sharing one berth. The corridor is not full of sleeping bodies. We chat to the family a bit and then prepare our beds for sleep. Sadly for Gayle, this is disturbed by the father opposite her who is snoring louder than the train's hooter. Instead of sensibly putting a pillow over his face and giving us all some relief, she changes berth.

Mysore is a nice city - it has a fresh climate (it's winter and we're at 700 metres, so the nights are cool) and the streets have pavements you can actually walk down, there are pedestrian crossings, and it's relatively clean. Remarkable. We stay in in a large vaguely art-decoish hotel along with half of Tamil Nadu. Gayle comments on the institutional ambience (I think her actual words were "open prison" ). John correspondingly likes the place because of this.
We awake each mornng at 6am to the sounds of guests shouting orders for coffee down the corridor, then shouting across to other families in other rooms (possibly across the central courtyard), then gathering in the corridor to exchange pleasantries and take photos, all on a high decibel range. The noise dissipates a little by 7am by which time we are fully awake and eager to escape. Our leisurely days are spent visiting the regular tourist sights, which includes the site of Tipu Sultan's demise. Tipu was the local head honcho who resisted the British in the 1790's Mysore wars. In the end they got him, and having seen both his summer palace and his mausoleum, we reckon he's lying in a nicer place these days.
One day we strike out to see a temple built in a particular architectural style (Hoysala - if you're interested) at Somnathpur. The temple is small but in very good nick and covered in very fine carving. To reach it, we have a long wait to change buses in a small village. When the connecting bus finally arrives it is teeming. Men are hanging out of the open doors. At first it looks like everyone is getting off (hooray), but then a huge mass of people we haven't seen before suddenly pile on in front of us (boo). In the end we climb the ladders to the roof with a dozen others and enjoy a scenic ride though the countryside - everywhere busy with the end of harvest, stacking and transporting freshly cut grain, threshing by hand, or that other ancient technique, by spreading it out across the road for the passing traffic to do the work. We raise a few smiles along the way when locals sitting by the road notice us on the roof. It's worth it - the temple is very special and the journey is all part of the fun.

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