Indian Travel Diary
Chapter 8: Kanchipuram

February 24th, Mamallapuram/Kanchipuram

I wake early and go out for breakfast. A half-hour on the net, final packing, then I get an autorickshaw to the bus station. The bus is leaving in ten minutes and it's only half-full. I stash my rucksack, laptop, shoulder bag and light coat at the front and take the first seat. We leave on time at 9:45 a.m. So far so good.

It's 20 rupees (40 US cents) and 60 km to Kanchipuram. The bus is full but not packed. The terrain is flat, with cultivated fields, and off in the distance several hills, some with temples on top. This is definitely India again. Halfway we stop at Chengalpattu, where the driver pulls into the bus mechanics' workshop; apparently a small problem with the steering, which they fix.

We go through several villages, all with temples of some kind. At noon we arrive at Kanchipuram. First impressions of the town are not too bad. The Rough Guide mentions the Sri Kusal Lodge near the bus station. It's easy to find, the reception is welcoming and a single with bath is cheap at 95 rupees (US$2), but it's drab, windowless, very basic and rather depressing. I decide to get something better. The guide book mentions the Meenakshi Grand and the Raj Narayan. Which? I decide on the Meenakshi Grand and get an autorickshaw there. It looks OK, the reception is friendly and they have spacious doubles with fan and bath for 341 rupees (US$7). I can't complain. It's cheaper and better than in Chennai and Calcutta. I pay for two nights in advance.

I get a bottle of Maaza, the mango drink bottled by the Coca Cola (India) Company. Delicious. The hotel clerk says it's made from "mango essence".

I go out for lunch. There's a restaurant attached to the hotel. It's quite large, with lots of tables with places set with palm leaves and tin cups holding water. Indian families are eating "meals", which consist of a dozen or so different items of food — rice, chutney, etc. (all vegetarian). I order a pineapple milk shake with a dollop of icecream. It's delicious, though at 46 rupees (US$1) it's not cheap, at least, not by Indian standards.

I go for a walk outside the hotel along Gandhi Road. There's not much here except lots of silk and sari stores, and places selling electrical goods, including grinders. What the grinders are meant to grind is not clear to me, but apparently every housewife needs one.

It's 2 p.m. and getting warm. I return to my hotel and lie down and sleep for nearly three hours, probably an attempt to escape from the realization of being back in the real India again.


I wake around 5 p.m. I hear what sounds like a muezzin, calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. This is curious, since this is South India, and Kanchipuram is a center of Hindu worship — not, I would have thought, a place where Islam is strong.

I notice that the windows onto the balcony are not particularly secure, and there's no metal grille, but the room's on the second floor, and hard to get onto the balcony except from the balcony next door.

I go out, intending to walk along Raja Road, past the bus station, to see what's what, maybe catch a temple or two around sunset.


I get an auto rickshaw to the Raj Narayan hotel to check the restaurant. The rooms are only 315 rupees and are better than the rooms at the Meenakshi Grand. And the location is better and (unlike the Meenakshi) they have a non-veg restaurant which serves Western breakfasts. Damn! I should've gone there first.

Girl on motor scooter with shrine
(Click on images to enlarge.)
I wander down Nellukkara Street, get an orange, wander back down another street. It's a fairly typical South Indian town, not exactly prosperous, but the people don't seem to be desperately poor. As in all Indian towns there are numerous small shrines to various Hindu deities. These often are locked during the day, and are opened in the evening for the performance of puja.

Eventually I come to the Kamakshi Temple. This temple marks one of the 51 satipithas; it's apparently the place where Sati's midriff fell. The goddess Kamakshi, I'm told by one of the fruit vendors outside the temple, is not the same as the goddess Kamakhya (whose temple I visited in Guwahati), but they are both emanations of Shakti. Shakti seems not so much to be a particular goddess but rather goddessness, divinity-in-female-form, so any goddess might be called "Shakti" in a sense, and Shiva/Shakti is the divinity in which the male god, Shiva, is in union with the female goddess, Shakti (personalized most commonly in the form of Parvarti).

Temple elephant
As I'm about to enter the temple grounds through the main doorway two elephants come along. They are temple elephants, with heads and trunk painted. They go through the doorway and their mahut positions them just inside. Their job is to accept offerings from the pilgrims, either coins or fruit (which they eat) and to give blessings. It is, of course, Ganesha (or Ganapati), who is giving the blessings through the medium of the elephants. I go outside and return with a couple of bananas for the elephants, who seem pleased to get them. The mahut tells me they are lady elephants (I believe all temple elephants are lady elephants — easier to control).

The sun has set. The temple looks interesting, and I go inside along an aisle flanked by railings, but at the inner door I'm told that non-Hindus are not allowed to enter.

As I'm walking down the street away from the Kamakshi Temple I notice another temple down a side street. This one is a Vishnu temple. There is no restriction here for non-Hindus, so I buy some flowers and go inside. At the shrine there is a huge image of Vishnu, in some kind of black stone, and on the altar are images of Lakshmi and other deities. In a side chamber is a statue of a many-headed Naga (a god in the form of a snake). I give my flowers to the brahmin priest, who offers them to the deity, and I place a few rupees on the offering tray. He gives me some consecrated water, which I put on the crown of my head, a kind of blessing from the deity.

I walk back to the Raj Narayan hotel to have dinner there. The lobby is full of incense smoke; they've just done their 7 p.m. puja. I'm the only person in the restaurant. For dinner I order dal tarka, nan and a lime soda. The soda in the bottle is mostly frozen, but it soon melts, and the lime juice is refreshing. The dal tarka tastes good too. Not a lot for 65 rupees, but I'm lucky to have found a place serving North Indian food.

I think about moving to the Raj Narayan, but since I'm only going to be in Kanchipuram for two nights (after which I will take the overnight train from Chennai) I think it's not really worth the effort of moving.

I find an internet place and get in a half-hour for fifteen rupees. The manager records the names of all users in a book, with their starting and ending times. Curious. It seems that the reason for this is that if some user accesses some website which is verboten then the government knows who they are.

I get an autorickshaw back to the Meenakshi Grand, where I have a cassatta for desert in the restaurant.

As I'm waiting for the lift a man comes along; he seems to be the manager or some hotel staff, and starts talking. He goes up in the lift with me to my floor. Says he wants to bring a cup and water jug, since these should be in the room but maybe were not put there when the room was cleaned. He turns up with these and a thermos (but no water) and puts them on the table besides my bed. I'm not too pleased about this. This is sort of suspicious behavior. Could be he wants to see what's in my room, whether there's anything worth stealing.

As I'm unpacking my toilet things I realize that my washbasin plug is missing. Damn! I must have left it in my room in Mamallapuram! How could I have been such a fool as to leave it behind?! I have a plug of a different type, but it's too large for the Indian sinks I've tried. So I don't have a working washbasin plug — essential for filling the washbasin in India since there are never any plugs. I was afraid this would happen. Why didn't I have the foresight get a second plug of the first type before I arrived in India?


February 25th, Kanchipuram

I wake at 8:30 a.m. I decide to move to the Raj Narayan hotel after all, partly because of the behavior of the man I met last night. I've hardly unpacked, so it's easy enough to pack up again. I check with the reception about getting a refund for the second night — that's OK. So I pack, check out and get an autorickshaw to the Raj Narayan. Check-in is quick, the room is much better, and I'm glad I've moved. By 10 a.m. I'm in the restaurant ordering an American breakfast. I'm the only customer, though the remains at the next table shows that others have recently preceded me.

Ordering breakfast and getting it are two different things. In this restaurant time seems to move at about one-third the pace outside. I'm told that pineapple juice is available. After ten minutes with nothing happening the waiter comes with two limes and says, no pineapple, only limes. OK, I say. After some more time the waiter brings some toast and butter, but no juice. Eventually the omelette arrives, but no juice or coffee. Another ten minutes and the juice arrives, by which time I've eaten the omelette and most of the toast. Ten minutes later the coffee arrives. The waiter takes my plate away and along with it a slice of toast not yet eaten. When I realize he's taken my toast I call another waiter to retrieve it. There are actually four waiters, all with white shirts and black bow ties, but whatever the waiters are doing doesn't seem to have much connection with getting breakfast to their only customer. The breakfast costs sixty rupees. I call for the bill. The four waiters are standing together chatting. After several minutes none of them has yet brought the bill so I go over and pay.


Sri Ekambaranathar gopuram
At about 3:30 p.m. I go out for an hour on the net, then get an autorickshaw to the Sri Ekambaranathar temple, which is a Shiva temple. Originally there was just a mango tree, it's said. Parvarti, temporarily exiled to Earth by Shiva (after a lovers' quarrel?), took a fancy to the mango tree, and made it her base. She constructed a shiva lingam (perhaps because she was missing Shiva's lingam), and later a temple was built in the same place, then the site expanded to what we see today.

Sri Ekambaranathar gopuram (detail)
The temple is quite large, with a tall gopuram covered with carvings of gods and heroes. Unlike some other temples in South India, such as the one in Madurai, which is a riot of color, this gopuram is unpainted. Also, curiously, one does not enter the temple by passing under the gopuram, but the entrance gate seems to be more like a side gate into the temple grounds.

As I go through the entrance gate a woman comes up with puffed rice, wanting to put some in my hand. I know this means I'll have to give her money. "No money, no money," she says, lying through her teeth. I accept the rice and she leads me to a statue of Ganesha set in an alcove in the wall, and proceeds to chant prayers. I'm instructed to throw the puffed rice over Ganesha as an offering. More prayers. Then it's time for money. I give her ten rupees, feeling generous today.

Brahmin with Nataraj
As I'm walking toward the main part of the temple I'm adopted by a man, S. Selvamani, who proceeds to act as my guide. He's actually quite informative, and leads me around the temple complex pointing out various shrines and other noteworthy things, such as the ancient mango tree. I enter a Ganesh shrine; the brahmin priests do their thing, put the red mark on my forehead, and I leave ten rupees. S. Selvamani takes me inside the temple, and we walk around in an area where there are many carved columns lining long aisles. We go into a shrine dedicated to Shiva as Nataraj. There are two brahmin priests there, and there's another short ritual and prayers. They give me two seeds from the mango tree to eat, and place more red and white marks on my forehead. Then it's money time again. Initially I offer twenty rupees, but eventually they persuade me to leave a hundred (US$2) — it's for all the pujas they do, morning, noon and night. A brahmin's work is never finished!

We've gone around the walled inner temple and are back at the entrance to it, but non-Hindus are not allowed inside. I've been taking photos all the while, and now I take a few more outside the temple, in the light of the setting sun. I leave S. Selvamani with a hundred rupees, twice as much as he was worth, but I'm feeling generous today.

I walk a bit, along some dusty streets, looking for another temple, but can't find it, and get an autorickshaw to the bus stand, where I find that express buses to Chennai leave around 7 p.m., which is when I want to leave tomorrow night. Then it's back to the hotel for a welcome shower, then dinner of nan and dal tarka, same as last night, but tonight unfortunately no icecream dessert, since I'm not near the restaurant at the other hotel. That pineapple milk shake (with icecream) that I had there the other day was so good that maybe I'll go back tomorrow for another.


February 26th, Kanchipuram

In a dream the idea comes to me of a relationship between the Earth and humans, in which the land on which humans live is regarded as consisting of parcels, and the care of each parcel is the responsibility of a particular person. In the dream these parcels are represented as strips of land, coloured yellow/green and each having a name, in a language which was not known to me but seemed to be Indian. The parcels are not all at one "level", but are arranged hierarchically, so that a parcel could include sub-parcels. Each parcel is assigned to a particular person, who is responsible for ensuring the welfare of all the land contained in that parcel, meaning that the air and water are clean, there is adequate plant and animal life, and generally that the ecosystem within that parcel is healthy (and so is a fit place for humans to live also). A person whose parcel includes sub-parcels will work with the people responsible for those sub-parcels. "Status" in this society, if there is such a thing, is measured in terms of the area of land for whose welfare one is responsible. There is something intriguing about this idea, and it keeps coming back in several dream episodes. Clearly the present dispensation, in which much of the land on which humans live is paved over with concrete and covered by multi-storey buildings, is not consistent with this approach to taking care of the world we live in.

The morning newspaper has been slipped under the door. This is the first Indian hotel I've stayed in where this has happened. This hotel is the best place I've stayed in during this visit to India, and at 315 rupees it's excellent value.

I go for breakfast. This morning the waiters are a bit more efficient, and manage to bring my orange juice, toast and omelette together (though the omelette is less than warm). And ten minutes later the coffee arrives.


I go out for an hour on the net then it's to the bus station. It seems there are express buses at 6:30 p.m. and 7:50 p.m., taking an hour and a half to reach Chennai. I figure I'll go for the later bus, which should get me there in time for the 10:45 p.m. train to Mysore.

I get an autorickshaw to the other restaurant where I have not one but two pineapple milk shakes with icecream. Delicious. Then it's back to the Raj Narayan hotel.


Dinner is a couple of small vegetable patties and a plate of chips.

Night has fallen. Back in my room, as I'm almost finished packing, the power goes out in the entire hotel. It's pitch dark and I have to leave in fifteen minutes! Fortunately the power returns after a couple of minutes.

I check out and lug my racksack etc. to the bus station, planning to take the 7:50 p.m. express bus to Chennai. I ask for the Chennai bus, and there's a "point-to-point" bus, almost as fast as the express (which in any case makes two stops), so I climb on board, stash my luggage up front and take the first seat.

The driver is an ugly-looking character who'd probably give you a knife between the ribs sooner than he'd give you the time of day. We pull out at 7:45 p.m., and make our way slowly out of Kanchipuram. Once on the highway the driver shows that he has latent (or not-so-latent) suicidal tendencies, pushing the bus along at a maniacal speed and overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic. The tendency of oncoming drivers in India not to dip their lights doesn't make things any safer.

After stopping at various small towns we arrive in Chenai at 9:45 p.m. There's an hour before my train leaves. But it's not the bus station close to Chennai Central railway station, where I was expecting we'd arrive, rather it's some new big bus terminal, located I know not where. Everyone's left the bus except the conductor and the ugly-looking driver. I don my rucksack and say to the driver, who probably doesn't understand English, "How far to Central Station?" He says nothing, but scowls and replies with a shake of the head, apparently meaning "Get off the fucking bus."  I reply, "Have a nice day."

There are local buses, so I ask a man for a bus going to Chennai Central, and he directs me to one. It's an old ramshackle affair, like all Chennai local buses. It trundles along and after half-an-hour we come to Chennai Central. I find my platform, my train, my carriage and my berth, with twenty minutes to spare. I chain my rucksack and laptop, as usual, to the fold-down table under the window. I'm sharing with two gentlemen. One of them has two bananas and offers me one, which I'm pleased to accept, forgetting that one has to be cautious about accepting food or drink from fellow passengers on Indian trains. I make my bed, lie down and the train leaves on time for the 500 km trip to Mysore.

It's a bumpy ride during the night. It's also quite cool, since not only is the compartment air-conditioned but for some reason the fan is also left on all night. I manage to sleep, though not very well.

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