Tamil Nadu, as ancient as it is beautiful, called us out of its maddening colonial cities and into its pastoral heartland where seemingly around every corner and under every bush is another relic of its iconic history. The homeland of some of India’s greatest empires it has long been rich with gold and culture. Even today its people are proud of their Dravidian-based language (one of the oldest in the world) and flock to the cinemas to watch the latest Tamil releases which rival the popularity of Hollywood and Bollywood.
On leaving Mahaballipuram, Lottie picked up a book called ‘A South Indian Journey’ by Michael Wood, which turned out to be an excellent travel guide for us and inspired our choice of stops. Focussing on the Hindu culture of the state, it lead us to amazing temples in Chidambaram, Tanjavore and Madurai where Cholan architecture reaches to the heavens and daily devotion still brings thousands to their knees. We were amazed by the sights sounds and smells that engulfed these huge complexes and in time began to understand a little more of the history and mythology that makes modern day Hinduism so varied, colourful and eclectic.
With temple overload setting in though, the small port town of Tharamgambadi was a welcome respite that took us back to colonial times, this time of Danish settlers. More commonly known as Tranquebar it had a fascinating history and contained some worthwhile sights, but mainly we enjoyed it for its peace and tranquility. Especially from our colonial era guesthouse complete with verandah and tiny four-poster beds.
After an intense few weeks of temple hopping, we boarded a train that took us via Kanyakumari, the Southernmost point of India, to one of its most celebrated states, Kerala. Kerala has the highest literacy levels in India, most of the population speak English and interestingly it is the only democratically elected communist state in the world. It is famous for its serene backwaters where Indian and western tourists flock to escape the overcrowded cities and noisy towns, typical of the rest of India.
Unfortunately the amount of tourists is quickly turning the serenity into chaos, especially around the port town of Allepey where hundreds of houseboats of various sizes and quality choke the main arteries. This was not our idea of relaxation, so we headed to Munroe Island, further south than Allepey where we were able to get a truer sense of backwater life.
On Munroe island we checked in with Vishnu at his beautiful waterside cottages ‘Munroe Nest’. His mother cooked us delicious Keralan curries for dinner AND breakfast (even after five months, we still had not got used to curry for breakfast), and we spent a glorious couple of days unwinding. As you know unwinding for us does nto necessarily mean sitting still. After ten minutes Lottie usually gets bored and this exact situation led us to embark on some serious mountain biking adventures around the island. We did not bring a map, nor intend to leave the road, however, we ended up lost in a watery maze before happening upon a kind lady who offered us bananas. It turned out these bananas were simply a trick to lure us into her garden where she talked to us in incomprehensible Keralan for a long time before we were marched up the hill to pray at the shrine of the Virgin Mary.
Despite Hinduism being the prominent religion in India, Kerala has a large Christian population who are a strange mix of Protestant, Catholic and Syrian Orthadox. A good book that gave us an insight into this was ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy, but we were not expecting to have such an encounter with the divine. Religion aside, the lady was very crazy and soon enough, we were keen to make a getaway, luckily a local school teacher directed us across a river to the train line where we were able to cross to a tarmac road and freedom.
Despite our trials and tribulations, we found the backwaters to be absolutely stunning and a must see for anyone visiting Kerala. They are host to a wonderful array of birdlife, and we spent hours spotting Kingfishers and Brahminy kites. The main industry is fishing, and many families own large prawn or fish farms. Other families own boat building yards and we were lucky enough to visit one one morning with Vishnu.
We also saw men making a living diving for mud. They would dive to the bottom of the river bed, scoop up mud and pile their boats high with it ready to sell to families to use on their land.
It all seemed very idyllic, but we could not help but wonder what the effect of climate change will have on this beautiful place. Barely a metre above sea level, already lots of the houses flood at certain times of the year, but if water levels rise , the fragile environment and villages are at great risk. Although the backwaters did appear to be cleaner than most water ways in India, there was the usual mounds of plastic and sewage spilling into them at various points. We even saw people defacating in their own gardens, all of which will be washed into the waterways.
In case you had forgtten, we were still very ‘lost’ after not managing to find ourselves back in Tamil Nadu. But luckily we had been informed of an Ashram up the coast from Munroe Island where we could learn yoga, meditation and other holistic skills for free under the watchful eye of ‘the hugging mother’. Amritapuri ashram was founded by Mata Amritanandamayi over twenty years ago, at that time a young girl from a small coastal village. It is said she could not bear the poverty in her village and set out to help all of those around her by simply showing kindness. At a young age she acquired her first followers and since then the ashram has grown from a cow shed to a huge campus with university, hospital and thousands of people living, studying and visiting there each year.
Many Westerners have dedicated their lives to following Amma and they told us that when you recieve a hug from her you feel something special. We headed there in hope of enlightenment, and to find out what it was all about. It costs £2.50 to stay at the ashram per day. This includes three basic meals (and they were very basic), accommodation and scheduled meditation and chanting sessions. It was required that you sign up for ‘seva’, a voluntary duty that you undertake to give back to the community. Unfortunately, if you are a newbie, there are only rubbish sevas left like laundry, doing the dishes or washing out milk packets. Alas, dismayed at this and the lack of any yoga classes at the time we were there, we decided to give it a go.
In our two days, we met some lovely people, we also met some not so lovely people, and Lottie especially wondered where all the ‘love’ that everyone was supposedly feeling manifested itself. She found the seva frustrating and the meditations useless. Ryan had a better experience and was quite challenged by the meditation, finding that it gave him space to hink and be peaceful. However, both of us still struggled with the idea of worshipping Hindu Gods and Goddesses and to an extent even worshipping Amma and we left after two days on a boat heading upriver to Kochi.
Kochi was to be our last major stop on our South Indian journey. From here we would head North to Delhi and on to Kazakhstan. But before then we had one major bucket list item to check off…a ride on Royal Enfields.
On reaching Kochi, we set about hunting for a good deal, and found that most bike rental places would hire Enfields for around £10-12 per day. This was too expensive for us, so we made a deal with Arafath in Kochi (www.arafathrentabikecochin.wordpress.com) that in return for a cheaper rate, we would create him a website.
In exchange for a day of work we loaded up two brand new Enfields and headed away from the coast to the tea plantaions in the Western Ghats. Our first stop was Munnar, home to Tata’s huge tea plantations (which have since been turned into a cooperative). The plantations were vibrant green, and the tea bushes weaved across the hillsides creating mesmerising patterns. It was great to be able to escape the heat of the plains and tourist hubs, weaving through the luscious green hills, visiting some of the plantation workers, living in stable like rows of basic accommodation.
We found the idyllic Pavithra River View home stay in the hills where we met two Germans whom we challenged to a game of carrom. Unfortunately we were all appalling at this game and the owner of the house looked on in despair as the game dragged on.
Descending from the Ghats we crossed Anamali Tiger Reserve, a beautiful stretch of dry hilly landscape where tigers still roam. We didn’t spot any, but did get caught in a huge rainstorm which led us to seek shelter in a small village.
Heading for Ooty, the road rose again into the Nilgiri Hills with a thrilling 43 hair pin bend track. This road offered stunning views across forested hillsides, and we stopped often to drink in the views and the peace and quiet. Ooty itself was a disappointment, another maddening Indian town, but with the bikes we were able to explore the stunning scenery that surrounds it, including the Silent Valley National Park.
Unfortunately, as with many beautiful places in India, tourism is taking its toll. As the weekend approached, quiet mountain roads became heaving masses of traffic. Indians like to enjoy a relatively slow lifestyle, most things are done ‘shanti shanti’, until they get into a car. In a car there is no way they are slowing down for anything. They overtake, undertake, drive along the pavement, blare their horns and take selfies as they cruise down the wrong side of the road. The trucks and buses are worse. Basically the biggest vehicle has right of way, regardless of road rules, often a truck would charge towards you on your side of the road and you were forced to take shelter in the gutter. On a motorbike you are invisible and we don’t think we have had a more terrifying driving experience on this trip. We spent a horrendous twelve hours making our way back to Kochi, and arrived sunburnt and shell shocked.
Back in Kochi, we enjoyed a couple of days exploring the old port town. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 1300s, it was later taken over by the Dutch and sacked by the British. It was a gateway for international trade and we enjoyed exploring the old fort, especially the Mantacherry palace which has beautiful Hindu artwork adorning its walls. It was also interesting to discover the old Jewish part of town, which houses one of the oldest synagogues in India, and where Jewish traders still live.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu are also famed for their performing arts. Whilst visiting a beautiful temple in Tanjavore, we had been lucky enough to come across a dance and arts show. Here we watched girls perform the ancient dance moves that can be seen carved into temple walls across the south of India. The key to the dance was the movement of the eyes, which almost bewitched you as you watched. In Kochi we really wanted to find traditional music, so we visited the Folklore Cultural Theatre, where we spent an evening listening to traditional drummers performing intricate and mind blowing rhythms accompanied by a male flute player.
As a final treat to top off our time in the south, our crazy pals Daz and Hels came across the water to visit us. We first met them in Tajikistan when riding the Pamir Highway. Two ex-army employees, they completed their service and are now touring the globe on two recumbant tricycles. How they survived riding the length of India was totally beyond us afer our recent experiences on the road, so of course we had to celebrate them being alive…with copious amounts of beer and curry!!
And then it was time for THE TRAIN. Ryan had convinced Lottie that rather than spending thirty quid on a two hour plane journey from Kochi to Delhi, it would be far better to spend ten quid and have a three day train journey accross India. He promised the journey would be ‘thrilling’ and a ‘must do’ thing in India. Well, after our first train journey from Delhi to Goa, Lottie was less than convinced and dreamt of the pleasant two hours she would spend in the plane. Until the Russians took all our money for the visa, and then we couldn’t afford the plane anymore ….
Despite arriving in Delhi after a three day train ride we were extrememly excited to be back in the capital. Last time we were here we barely had chance to explore, and this time we not only had time, but company. We met Lottie’s dad and his wife Jenny off the plane at 1am the following morning, surprising them after their delayed flight. Iain had not only come to say hello, he was effectively a motorcycle parts mule, smuggling in a suitcase full of bearings, electronics and the most essential of essentials…duct tape!
Over the following days we explored both new and old Delhi. It was a delight to share our knowledge of India and its food with people who were trying it for the first time, and we even got a little taste of luxury – our companions far willing to spend a bit more on accommodation, tuk-tuk rides and food than us cheapskates!
Some particular highlights in Delhi were the Red Fort and Humayan’s tomb, the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. We went full on tourist with audio guides and geeky guidebooks, wanting to make the most of the extortionate prices only foreigners are charged to get into these sights. Ryan took us all off on a magical mystery tour to find a fabled Ashokan pillar, installed by Ashoka the Great who was the first and arguably the greatest emperor of the Indian subcontinent. Having conquered most of India he decided war was frivolous and instead of warmongering he decided to follow Buddhist practices. He installed the pillars as edicts to his people on how to live peaceful lives. After pushing our way past the corrupt gate guard we watched the red sun set over Delhi beneath the ancient pillar, overlooking the ruins of the Kotla Firoz Shah palace.
Despie the wealth of historical sites accross Delhi, its heart is still in the old city, where shops cram into tiny sprawling alleys and children hop across the roof tops flying kites in the evening breeze. We loved hearing the sound of the call to prayer reverberate through the alleys as we explored, trying not to get crushed by the cycle rickshaws, cows and motorcycles! As we delved deeper into the maze we came across religious processions, tiny gaming shops teeming with young boys playing retro arcade games, a wealth of weird and wonderful food and learnt that in Old Delhi, one can find anything, as long as you look for long enough!
After a couple of days in Delhi, we rose at 2am to take a ride to the one not to miss sight in India – The Taj Mahal. We arrived as the gates opened, just before sunrise, and were lucky enough to catch the first rays of sun lighting up the perfect, white marble. It was truly a majestic sight.
As mentioned before, we are mega cheapskates, so it was an absolute treat to be accompanied by a guide when we went to the Taj Mahal. However we are also mega geeks, and between us had read the history of the Taj Mahal from a number of different websites and books including the excellent ‘City of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple. This put the unfortunate guide in a sticky situation. Used to tourists who simply want to ‘clic-a-pic’ and know the very basics, he was unprepared for our detailed questioning and demand for knowledge. He was however, significantly better than some of the guides we had overheard in other parts of India, who told people ancient Hindu ruins were actually ‘Chinese dragons’, and that old wooden letter boxes, given as gifts to Shahs by envoys from across the world, were simply pretty jewellery boxes of the Shah’s wife.
Despite not garnering any new information, the Taj Mahal was simply majestic and we spent a few hours admiring the intricate marble work. Shah Jahan built the Taj as a mauselum for his wife in the 1600s. Many archeologists believe that he was planning to build his own mauselum on the opposite bank of the river before he died. A black Taj to mirror and stand in contrast to his wife’s white. We could only imagine how amazing this would have been to behold.
And so came the end of our time in the beautiful, mad, frustrating, but incredible India. We left with a sense of relief, no more of the honking, crushing, stinking, maddening siuations we had found ourselves in. No more selfie requests, being dragged from pillar to post to pose for photos with granny, kids, married couples. No more filthy hotel rooms, death trap bus rides, or hopping over rubbish heaps in the street. No more lack of privacy, frustrating beaurocracy, insecure men, or down and out poverty. A relief indeed.
But leaving India also meant leaving behind a country where around every corner there is a sight to behold. A country where spirituality and daily life walk hand in hand through the chaotic streets. There is nowhere on Earth that shows you the wealth of human diversity and ingenuity like India. We were leaving the land of vibrant colours, exotic nature, white toothed grins, blaring Hindu music, and laughing children.
We believe everyone should visit India, at least once, because there is nowhere else quite like it. We cant quite see a clear path for its future. The right-wing nationalist BJP party is strengthening its hold across the nation, and with it comes division and sectarianism. The South of India is leaps and bounds ahead of some of the Northern States and this is already causing economic tensions. In the South itself, as global warming changes the climate, water is becoming scarce, and even while there is still water in the reservoirs disputes are raging. And then there is the rubbish. The mountains and mountains of rubbish wherever you look. As for the prevalence of poverty in India, with a population that is still rapidly growing, soon to eclipse even that of China, we are unsure how PM Modhi can even begin to make a difference to the poorest of his people. However, India taught us not to look the other way, that a smile can be worth as much as a coin and that poverty does not necessarily mean not having enough food to eat, but not having dignity. Can India truly become a global superpwer with so many problems to sort out in its own nation. We don’t know, but we will say this, it will give it a damn good try!
Most importantly for us, we realised in India that once you travel with your own vehicle, you can never go back to backpacking! The freedom and choice it gives you is unparalleled. You can Stonehenge you like, meet people whom you could never meet travelling by bus or train. Be take under the wing of strangers and go in pursuit of the weird and the wonderful in a way you never can when relying on somebody else to get you there. We were leaving India with a sense of excitement. Next stop, Kazakhstan, back to the bikes, the mountains and Central Asia.