Kodaikanal

Kodaikanal, India

As day breaks our bus begins to wind it’s way up a precipitous mountain road toward the Kodaikanal hill station. Our pilot applies the horn judiciously at each corner, continuing the cacophony which all passengers aboard had endured for the past six hours. The man seated next to me hacks and coughs and for every 100 feet we climb appears to double his efforts to exhume a lung. My only consolation comes from the knowledge that further back in the bus Nuriel and Amit, a couple of travelers from Israel, were suffering through the same ordeal.

I met Nuriel and Amit on a bus out of Mahabalipuram and they were quick to fill me in on their plans to make for Kodaikanal: a sleepy, mystical town drifting high in the clouds where the very fabric of time itself seemed weaved a little looser. Expectations are not wisely held in a country such as this, however we were sold on the dream and made our way up to find it.

Far from disappointment, the view took our breath away and the cool restored a sense of sanity I hadn’t felt since I’d left New Zealand. Popular among tourists both Indian and foreign, Kodaikanal offers a welcome respite from the sweltering furnace of the plains below.

Sunrise viewed from the banks of Greenlands Youth Hostel
Dusk falls on the hills surrounding Kodaikanal
The tourist season not quite arrived, we joined the local shopkeepers in a highly competitive game of Carrom. Essentially a flat version of pool. Curiousity: I am eyed cautiously by a lizard as I eye it right back in Bryant park

On the left: The tourist season not quite arrived, we joined the local shopkeepers in a highly competitive game of Carrom. Essentially a flat version of pool. To the right: Having climbed up my leg, a lizard eyes me cautiously as I eye it right back in Bryant park.

One of the many lookouts on the hike down from Kodaikanal. 10 minutes later the entire scene is enshrouded in clouds. Our guide informs us he planned it so

One of the many lookouts on the hike down from Kodaikanal. 10 minutes later the entire scene is enshrouded in clouds. Our guide informs us he planned it so.

After a couple of restorative days, I linked up with a Frenchman by the name of Nicholas and we decided to embark upon a guided hike back down to the plains.

A curious fellow, our guide gleefully smoked and nattered his way down the mountain. Leading us from vista to vista, enthusiastically snatching our cameras to take all assortment of creative photography. To call this a goat track would sing perhaps too high a praise and we often found ourselves skating down the loose, rocky outcrops instead of walking.

Descending from on high, the heat rushed up to greet us, delighted to enter us into its boiling embrace once again. Hiking through hill towns and farms of avocado, coffee and cocoa accessible only by foot, we eventually arrived on the flatlands only to be promptly tucked into a ragged rickshaw. As we bounced and clattered our way to the local bus depot, I was relieved just to be seated after a long day on foot. Truly, India is a country where ones sense of comfort learns to loosen considerably.

Clouds sidle up the hillside as I peer back whence we came
The path out of Vattakanal Language proves an adequate barrier when I enquire as to whether this species of spider is poisonous. The guide merely beams and tells me to take a photograph. I keep my distance

On the left: the path out of Vattakanal. To the right: Language proves an adequate barrier when I inquire as to whether this species of spider is poisonous. The guide merely beams and tells me to take a photograph. I keep my distance.

Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, India

A chorus of rock-tapping, drilling and sawing serenades you as you enter Mahabalipuram, a small coastal town with a history stretching as far back as the 1st century AD. Haven of fishermen and stone-workers, the only thing more aggressive than the noise of their trade is the salesmen heckling you to see their wares. I was deep in the heart of Backpackistan, as the lonely planet so quaintly put it.

Fervent in their worship, the Southern Indian states and in particular Tamil Nadu are known for constructing copious numbers of temples. Mahabalipuram could be the poster-child for this phenomenon as here you might struggle to walk ten steps without striking upon yet another temple enshrining one of the many Hindu gods. A galaxy of such structures, often carved into the cliffs themselves, awaits anyone willing to take a stroll through the central park.

The shore temple at Mahabalipuram. Degraded by the ocean winds, the appearance of the sculptures is almost surrealist A monkey rests on Mahabalipuram hill, in front of the lighthouse
The Vishnu tank, situated near to the Shore temple
Krishna Mandapam, a cave temple carved directly into the cliff face at Mahabalipuram hill Depictions of hindu gods are lit up at night during the 3-day fishermens festival

On the East Coast road between Mahabalipuram and Chennai lies everything from artist communes to crocodile parks. I spent the day darting from point to point on the way through. Of particular note was Dakshinachitra, an open-air museum of sorts offering a cultural history of each state of India as well as classes on glass-blowing, sari-weaving and more.

Glass blowing at Dakshinachitra
Though likely spiritual in nature, I have no explanation for what this is A very sinister-looking breeding pair of the endangered Siamenese crocodile family rest together at the Madras Crocodile Bank

The Wedding

Chennai, India

Pacing up a darkened street almost as fast as my newly acquired $8 pair of jeans are falling down my waist, I search frantically for the local YMCA in the hopes of making it to the wedding reception in time. Sandeep messages me frantically, “Have you found it??”, as beads of sweat stream down my face. It’s about 30 degrees here even at night; Skinny jeans were a bad choice.

I met Sandeep on the train from Hyderabad and he explained he was on his way to Chennai to attend his cousins wedding. He made no hesitation in inviting me along and, though barely able to contain my excitement, I accepted immediately.

A far cry from the monochromatic, orderly scenes of most european weddings, the crowd here is awash in bright colours. Gleaming saris and bright dress shirts flood the halls as a queue to give blessings to the newly wedded couple extends far out of the door. Sandeep hands me a floral broach, explaining that only the family may wear these: I am a guest of honour, it seems.

Not wanting to disappoint, I make my way around the crowd taking photographs and shaking hands. Downstairs in the food hall they serve dinner on large banana leaves to the 1,200 guests flowing through the venue. On offer: the most delicious mutton biriyani paired with fried chicken, indian bread-and-butter pudding and more. I am in heaven, though it must be said that while I assumed eating with my fingers would come naturally, a life of cutlery use had left me woefully unprepared. I do my best to battle through it much to the amusement of the locals around me.

After 3 or 4 hours spent greeting guests and smiling for photographs, the bride and groom are finally permitted rest and in a move of great flattery summon me up onto the stage to meet them. Congratulating them, I stood and beamed as we posed for one last photograph. They hand me a bouquet of white flowers and profusely thank me for coming. I am floored by their warmth and tell them the pleasure was all mine.

The bride, groom and guests pose for a photograph
The modern wedding: abound with selfies. Sandeep second from the left
Mehndi pattern on the hands of the bride The bride and groom recieve blessings from friends and family
View of the guests in vibrant colours The mother and father of the bride tuck in to dinner. 'He wants to show his friends how Indian people eat!' chuckles the mother as I take a photo

Taxidermy

Chennai, India

To avoid encouraging the slaughter of endangered species, it’s a common practice among Museums to avoid replacing their collections of taxidermied animals. Despite this, I couldn’t help but have a good laugh at the taxidermy on show at the Chennai museum. After a rough couple of days, this was exactly what I had needed.

Ganesh

Hyderabad, India

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Sidhu, beaming, announced he was going to take me to see the Ganesh. We arrived and fought our way through perhaps the most tumultuous crowd I’d encountered so far. Standing at the front of this procession at 60 feet tall, an idol of the Hindu god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings: Ganesh. Impressed, I wrestled my camera from my bag just in time to capture it before the frenzy swept us back out of it’s view. Though beautiful, I wasn’t sure what it was for, and would remain perplexed until the day of my departure from Hyderabad.

Expecting to make the most of my last day in town, I caught a rickshaw down to the Salar Jung museum early only to be turned away by a large notice announcing the museums closure for the Ganesh Immersion. Baffled, I made my way to the lakefront, the only area for miles where something 60 feet tall could hope to be immersed. The shores of the lake were lined with cranes as far as the eye could see and lavishly decorated cars, trucks and rickshaws were pouring in from all directions, each delivering colourful Ganesh idols to the cranes. The crowds sang and cheered, burning incense and banging on drums as idols were lifted down into the water.

The immersion ritual marks the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival spanning 10 days in which temporary shrines are worshipped before being immersed in the lake as a means of purification.

The 60 ft Ganesh, rumoured to be the tallest in the city
A decorated rickshaw delivers a Ganesh idol to the waterfront A group of men pose proudly with their shrine
Ready for immersion A crane lifts an idol of Ganesh down into the water in view of the statue of Bhudda