The plane takes off from Colombo's airport full of Tamil pilgrims - men in black shirts and lunghis, all barefoot. To one side of the plane is an immense stretch of trees and to the other the ocean. We wave goodbye to Sri Lanka, which we have renamed the 'Island of 10%' - as a result of a tendency to overcharge. We are eager to return to India and looking forward to that little extra edge the country has to offer. Arriving at Chennai International Airport the baggage reclaim is swamped by tons of luggage from a flight from Jeddah. A crowd of Muslim families struggle with overloaded trolleys - returning from the Haj. We emerge outside to face a crush barrier holding back a huge crowd of people waiting to greet travellers - it's noisy and sweaty and we have to elbow through the crowd. Eventually we find out where the bus to the bus station goes from - a half-kilometre walk down the side of a flyover immediately outside the airport. There's no pavement to walk on, only dirt and rubbish and an open drain at the side of the road. The familiar blend of sulphurous and ammonia smells reach our noses. We walk past a man urinating. A small crowd indicates a bus stop and we hop on a clunking Tata bus with glass-less windows heading into the city. Ahh, this must be the 'edge' we were looking forward to.
We head first to Mahabalipuram - a 'must-see' on the tour of the south because of its UNESCO-listed rock-cut temples famous for their carving. The small town is quite touristy as a result. Gayle visited here about 20 years ago and it's not quite how she remembers it. The collection of temples are impressive - they're dotted around the town and include a life-size elephant and a fantastic frieze carved onto a large rockface complete with what looks like a dancing chorus on each flank. One temple sits on the shoreline, its fine carving now weathered and worn by wind and sea. It's the start of Pongal holidays in Tamil Nadu, to celebrate harvest time, and the town is full of people come to see the sights. We come across a kolam competition - the traditional Pongal decoration in front of the doorstep - with colourful designs laid out on the ground.
There's a certain je ne sais quoi about Pondicherry, just down the coast. Maybe it's the leafy tidy quiet streets along the seafront, the colonial architecture, or just the croissants and coffee in the bakery. For the town used to be, like my home town Poulton-le-Fylde, a French conclave despite some belligerent attempts by the British to oust them. Judging from what we see the French brought with them lycees, boutiques, silly hats for the police to wear (the British ones never caught on in the rest of India), and very clean streets. It takes us some time to find a hotel - places are either full or being refurbished. We try the 'Hotel de Ville', but are turned away unceremoniously by some officious angry little man . The rickshaw drivers here honk the kind of horn that a circus clown uses - highly appropiate in our opinion. There is a famous ashram here founded 80 years ago by a guru called Aurobindo and continued by a Frenchwoman after his death known simply as the Mother. Outside of town is a large community called Auroville for those who like to blend a little new age science with yoghurt, or yoga. I can't quite grasp the gist of it myself.......
We board a mobile disco masquerading as a public bus, booming with Bollywood hits, and dance all the way to Thanjavur. Here we visit the 'Big Temple', which is rather, erm, large. Many temples in the south of India feature the full gamut of Hindu gods and goddesses, all perched on ledges, in a variety of poses and facial expressions and painted in bright colours. The effect is very kitsch. The Big Temple is a more sober affair - and all the buildings and carvings are done in sandstone. We wander around in the evening light and join the pilgrims inside the shrines. The priests are hard at work for Pongal - and the large tea urns that turn out to be receptacles for donations feature predominantly.