Friday, 10 December 2010

Indian Experience Part 2: Tirvannamalai

After spending the working week in Delhi, I hoped on a plane to Chennai. My close friend Harriet has been living in a rural town called Tirvannamalai for the past ten years. Tiruvannamalai is a pilgrimage town in the state of Tamil Nadu and is quite the spiritual destination due to the famous Annamalaiyar Temple located at the foot of the Annamalai hill. Tiruvannamalai has long been associated with many yogis and siddhars, and more recently the 20th century guru Ramana Maharshi, making it a very spiritually auspicious place. Basically it is in the middle of fucking nowhere but there is the odd crusty that pops by to notch one up on their sandal wool bedpost of hippy traveler credentials. Clearly I had packed all wrong and soon realised that my 4 inch glittery black stilettos were to have no part in my adventure but was proud to reveal my 1998 Miu Miu gemstone sandals which I had been saving for the last 12 years for just such an eventuality as finding myself in the hippy arse end of nowhere.

And this was what I pondered as I sped out of Chennai and drove the 3 and half hours to Tiru. How could a girl as obsessed with packing as I am have got it so wrong? However I soon reached into a karmic place and redirected my channel of thinking towards my chakras which was a stroke of luck because fashion felt a long way from home.

As I driver further and further from Chennai I notice that the landscape is becoming less and less like the bits of more rural India that I saw whilst visiting factories outside of Delhi and more and more like the part in Jungle book when Mowgli leaves the forest to follow the princess…I half expected Baloo to pop out scratching his arse and singing the bare necessities. In addition to the standard cows, there are now goats and monkeys grazing by the road, in the road… The roads are a total free for all. Worse than Delhi (if that is imaginable) because here they drive in both directions on both sides of the road with seemingly little or no regard for human safety. The horns are again and constant back drop but by now I have figured out that they are a necessary evil in the game of frogger that driving through India resembles.

Rangoli chalk drawings
We pass rural villages, bulls pulling rice trucks, thickening palm trees and brightly painted shacks which are clearly home to thousands. These modest shacks are basic but beautiful. Clearly owned by the house proud. And this prettiness seems to be particular to India in general. The rocks by the sides of the roads are often painted pretty colors, the pavements are embellished daily with special chalk drawings called Rangoli and even the most basic of structures is given the respect of a little additional attention be it a garland of flowers or a creative lick of paint. Of course I am falling in love! I am also starving. I spent the week in Delhi nurturing Nehas do’s and don’t of food as though they were the Ten Commandments handed to me directly from the Lord Almighty and adopting a religious servitude to shame a Yogi. Woody Allen has nothing on me when it comes to neuroses over anything relating to the digestive system and as a result of my paranoia must have dropped at least 5 lbs in the week. I had images of myself dealing with Delhi Belly in the factory loo. Would rather starve to death… So got to Tiru in need of a good meal. I was sure that the sanitary conditions would be more to my liking in my friend’s house and I could relax a little….. Did you know that in rural India they go to the loo in a hole in the ground? I didn’t. I don’t think I need to say anymore.

The loo!
By the time I get to Harriet it is late and I am pretty overwhelmed. I have never, ever seen anything like what I have just driven through. The beauty, the poverty, the sense of peace, the sheer different-ness of it all. It was a crazy drive with plenty of livestock obstacles, rice trucks in the road, lots of tiny little villages filled with color and me with the awareness that I was so, so far from home in so many ways. I arrived sort of drained but free and happy. It was already dark so I didn’t see much but I could see the fire burning on top of the Annamalai Mountain in celebration of the Deepam festival and went to sleep with the distant sounds of goats bleating and the fire burning on top of the mountain at the foot of my bed.

Harriet's house
The next morning was my nutritional baptism of fire as we stopped to pick up breakfast from Harriet’s local favorite spot. The little wrinkled Indian women were dealing a roaring trade in Iddly and Dosa out of pots and pans on the floor of their hut. As delicious as it smelt, visions of dysentery flashed through my mind as did images of the hole-in-the-ground loo situation. Those two images do not sit well together but once again I reached inside for some karmic grace, redirected my chakras and actually enjoyed a delicious breakfast.

Local breakfast joint Tiruvannamalai

The next few days were spent with Harriet and her daughter enjoying their daily life. We drove around the town on her little moped checking out the Sadhus in their cool orange robes and avoiding the cows (so many cows!). We went to Sunday morning chanting (about 20 hippies sitting on the floor emitting good vibes and the curious smell of the unwashed).

A Sadhu

Beautiful colours outside the temple
(click to enlarge)

Inside the temple gates with Rangoli
(click to enlarge)
We took a rickshaw round the mountain , popping in on the Ashram on the way to the Annamalaiyar Temple (one of the great Shiva Temples of Tamil Nadu) – and we visited the  Shanthimalai Handicraft development Society where I indulged my need to shop compulsively abroad and found the most amazing embroidered bedspread and incense sticks. My Primrose Hill bedroom now smells (and looks) like a Bangalore brothel.

I gave up on my digestive neuroses and indulged my love of Indian food from Iddly and Dosa by the road side to the most amazing steaming cups of Masala chai. I indulged myself on every level and it was so, so good. So good that I can’t wait to go back. I shall now be known as Sadhu Sara.

My last cup of chai by the roadside on the way home

Me at the temple after rather
emotional blessing ceremony


  1. sounds like an amazing trip Sara!

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