The water of life…or death?

The Kerala backwaters are a microcosm of life in India.  I have already posted about the fishing we saw on our tour so today I want to focus on the water itself.

Welcome to the Backwaters

These two young lads welcome you to the backwaters.  How many people would enjoy a swim in these warm waters?  But swimming is not the only activity which takes place.

Life on Keralas Backwaters

When you have no running water you use the nearest source to wash your hair or have a bath.

washing clothes in the Backwaters

You also need somewhere to wash your clothes…

washing pots in the Backwaters

…and your pots and pans.

The big problem is the quality of water, a problem throughout India.

Over 772 million people don’t have access to adequate sanitation in India, that’s two thirds of the population – so you can guarantee that the backwaters are used as a toilet by a number of local residents.

93 million people in India don’t have access to safe water – so you can also guarantee that some people will be getting their drinking water either from the backwaters itself or local wells which are not safe.

Over 186,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation in India. (Statistics from Water Aid UK  )

Even if people do not drink the water from the Backwaters the fact that they bathe in it, swim in it and eat from pots washed in it means that they are always open to infection.

The Backwaters of Kerala are a beautiful place and I recommend that if you ever get the chance you should visit and enjoy.  Hopefully the income from tourism will help such rural areas to improve the supplies of clean water for the local residents.

First of all I must apologise for the lack of posts over the last few weeks.  Initially there was the problem with my being denied access, then came a major computer failure which has taken a couple of weeks to sort out – not ideal in the middle of high season with lots of guests and needing to access bookings and invoices!  Suffice to say though, we now seem to be back in action (I hope it lasts!) and I can again let you know a little more about life here in Tamil Nadu.

As part of their stay with us some guests like to join one of our excursions.  Recently this involved taking a guest to visit the city of Madurai where, apart from the temple, it is also possible to visit the Thirumalai Nayak Palace.

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This palace was built in 1636 AD by King Thirumalai Nayak and is a mixture of classic Dravidian Indian and Islamic styles which gives it a feeling not unlike that of some of the old Islamic buildings in Moorish Spain.

ThirumalaiNayak Palace Madurai

 

colums and arches 

At the time of Thirumalai the Nayak kingdom was often visited by traders and missionaries from Europe and it is thought that the king hired an Italian architect to help design and build his palace.

 

Islamic arches

The palace was originally four times the size of that which remains today and was the main ‘home’ for the king and his family.  Over the 400 years of its history it has been subjected to destruction by war as well as the ravages of time; there was even a period when it was used as a garrison with granaries, storehouses and an arsenal by the East India Company.  There is sufficient of the Palace left, however, to give a feeling of what a magnificent place this would have been in its heyday.

There is now only the large enclosed courtyard (3,700 square meters) and a few surrounding buildings remaining including the Syatga Vilasam (audience chamber) which is a huge hall supported by pillars 12m high and holding a museum of local artefacts.

 

The Swarga Vilasam at the end of the courtyard was the throne- room.   It is a beautiful octagonal area surrounded by Islamic arches and capped with a dome 20 meters high supported by massive columns and arches which lead to an arcaded gallery overlooking the courtyard.

The palace was constructed   in brick and finished with a local type of stucco called chunnam which is a mixture of lime and egg white that gives a smooth, glossy texture.  The style is very photogenic, and although the paintwork is ‘tired’ in places anyone who loves photography will enjoy the opportunities presented by the columns, arches, ceilings and changing light patterns.

painted ceiling madurai

After Independence the Palace was declared a national monument and is cared for by the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department who run evening light and sound shows telling the history of Madurai (one showing in Tamil and a later showing in English).

Some people say that there is little to see at the palace and spend only a short time there but for me, and my camera, it is a splendid window on the history of Madurai with its mixture of Dravidian, Muslim and European influences.

I would recommend a stop there if you are ever in the area!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Cochin

 

Recent clients on one of our South Indian Tours spent a couple of nights in fort Cochin, Kerala.  As with all tourists they spent time watching the Chinese fishing nets in use.  These nets seem to be found only in China and Fort Cochin!  It is thought that traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan introduced the nets here, but no-one is sure why they were set up along the coast here at Fort Cochin and Vypeen.

The nets are fixed to the shoreline and are operated from there by a massive cantilever.  The structure is about 10 meters high and operated by five or six men.  The individual length of the boom means that the net can only work in a specific depth of water so there are different sized structures to enable the fishermen to work in different depths of water in this tidal area.

Bamboo and teak poles hold the nets which have large rocks as counter-weights.  A man will walk out along the arm of the mechanism and his weight is enough to lower it down into the water.   The net is only left in the water for about four or five minutes before it is raised by the team of fishermen hauling on the ropes.  The rocks, each about 30 cm in diameter, are suspended from ropes of different lengths so that as the net is raised they  come to rest on the ground in sequence which keeps everything nicely balanced.

They nets rarely catch much – just a fish or two and maybe the odd crab or a few shrimps, but they can be lowered a great many times during the day which can lead to a sizeable catch.  The fish are often sold immediately to local passers-by who take them home for dinner – or by tourists who will get their hotel to cook them – no need for a middle-man in the market here!

It is not difficult to see why these nets are such a tourist attraction.  Large and elegant they line the shore like giant herons intent on fishing for their supper; their movemnet is strangely mesmeric and, along with the creaking of the rope and the splashing of the water, seems to wash away any stresses and cares.  Under the cloudless sky, watching the sun reflecting from the water in a mryiad rays, seeing the fish, leap and turn so that the sun reflects off their scales in rainbow shades – what a wonderful way to spend some time!

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Where oceans meet

We recently spent a couple of days at Kanyakumari whichis the southernmost tip of India where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet.  The town takes its name from the Hindu goddess Kanyakumari and there is a temple dedicated to her on the seashore.  Pilgrims flock to this place for a blessing from the goddess.  It is considered highly auspicious to see the sunrise and/or the sunset from the shore at Kanyakumari. Due to its position it is even possible on some special occasions to see both sunset and moonrise over the ocean at the same time.

 

Kanyakumari has a long history, mentioned by the Roman historian Ptolemy as a centre for pearl fishing.  The two main businesses now are tourism and fishing.

 

 

 

 

The fishermen go out in small wooden boats, indeed many locals were killed when these small boats and their homes were hit by the Tsunami in 2004.

 

 

 

 

Mending nets in Kanyakumari

 

You are often able to see the fishermen mending their nets during the heat of the day.

 

 

 

 

Two of the main tourist attractions are on small rocky islands just off shore. 

 

 

Statue of the Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar

 

One houses the 41 meter (133 feet) tall statue of the Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is possible to climb up inside the base of the statue.  Standing at the feet and looking up along the towering body is an awesome sight.

 

Vivekananda Rock Memorial

 

The second island is home to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial with a meditation hall dedicated to swami Vivekananda who is said to have meditated on the island for three days. 

 

Vivekananda Rock Memorial

 

 

To spend time in the hall (whether meditating or not) imparts a wonderfully calm feeling.

 

 

 

 

 

From the island you can look back at the mainland where the foothills of the western ghat mountains begin to rise.  In the foreground you can see Our Lady of Ransom church

 

Gandhi Memorial Building

 

On the mainland is the Gandhi Memorial Building.  After the Mahatmas cremation some of his ashes were kept in an urn here before being scattered at the confluence of the three seas. 

 

 The building is ingeniously constructed, and on Gandhi’s birthday, 2nd October, the first rays of the rising sun illuminate the exact spot where his ashes were kept.

It is possible for us to arrange visits to Kanyakumari for those who come on one of our tours of south India.

A rocky pillow to keep you safe.

Dindigul is our nearest town (about 27km from Lakeside) where we go to buy anything we can’t get from the local village.  The town is centered around a large rock formation in the middle of a plain and gets its name from a Tamil description of this rock (“Thindu” meaning pillow and “kal” meaning Rock)

Dindigul is most famous for its locks, safes, spinning mills and leather tanning, but its true importance and the reason for it initial siting here is its strategic position.

On such a flat plain an imposing rock like the one at Dindigul holds commanding views of the area and was the ideal place for a fort.  The town which sprang up around it soon became a crossroads – North to Bangalore, East to Chennai and Pondicherry, South to Madurai and Kanyiakumari and west into the state of Kerala. 

The oldest structures on the hill (280 ft. high) are a Hindu temple and other religious remains (possible Jain remains in one of the caves).  The site must have been used as a place of defense for thousands of years but the first recorded large fort was begun in 1605 by the Madurai King Muthu Krishna Naicker and finished by Mannar Thirumalai Naicker between 1623 to 1659.  In 1755 the famous Hyder Ali took his wife and five year old son Tipu Sultan to Dindigul; after his fathers death Tipu Sultan took over the fort in 1784 and ruled there until he was defeated in the ‘Mysore Wars’ in 1790 when the British took over and had a garrison there until 1860.

There are a number of buildings surviving on the top of the hill, and you can see the remains of a remarkable rain-water-harvesting system which meant that, unless there was a severe drought, the fort could be self-sustaining in water and so withstand a siege.  The defensive walls extend around the whole of the summit except for in the southern side which is so steep that no attacking force would be able to succeed. Some of our guests take a walk to the top of the hill (early morning before it gets too hot!) and enjoy the views which stretch for miles.

Spring Haiku

I’m very bust with auditing end of year accounts and writing reports so not much time for posts at the moment!  However, this young monkey in Thekkady (seen during one of our tours) inspsired me to write my first Haiku.  I hope you like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tender leaf unfurls.

Senses discovered.  Explore

new leaf, new life. Spring.

“Man lives freely only by his readiness to die” – the Gandhi Memorial Museum, Madurai

Yesterday I took some of our guests (who are staying at Lakeside as part of one of our tours) on a trip to the city of Madurai.  As it is only 1 hour from here it makes a great excursion for the day, enabling people to come back and stay in the peaceful surroundings here rather than in a busy (and noisy) city hotel. 

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

 Madurai features in all tours of southern India, its main feature being the famous Meenakshi temple.  The history of the city stretches back to at least the 3rd century BC when Megasthanes the Greek visited Madurai, later to be followed by other Greeks and Romans who established trade with the Pandyan Kings.  Madurai has a rich and varied history, finally falling under the rule of the British in 1781 and now a part of Independent India.

Throughout the history of Madurai there are very few examples of women ruling as they were not thought suitable to succeed to the throne, but one famous Queen was Rani Mangammal who ruled for 18 years during a very difficult period at the end of the 17th century.  She faced, with almost no outside help, the armies of Emperor Aurangzeb, paying a tribute but by doing so also being able to regain some of the lands lost by previous kings.  She developed and repaired irrigation systems and roads and built many public buildings as well as a palace for herself (circa 1670)).  This building became the home of the British Collectors of Madurai (the Collector in India is a very influential post which still exists today).  In 1955 the palace and about 13 acres of land were given by the Tamil Nadu State Government to the All India Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Hindi – Gandhi Memorial Trust) to be used as the Gandhi Memorial Museum which was opened in 1959 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. (There are four other Gandhi Museums in India).

Gandhi Memorial Museum (Rani Mangammal Palace)

 Apart from the temple (which I’ll tell you more about in another post), the Gandhi Memorial Museum is a ‘must see’ and our current guests, like all other English visitors we have taken there, were much moved by the experience.

The Museum is effectively divided into two sections.  The first depicts India’s struggle for freedom, starting with the arrival of the British to trade and chronicling the rule of the Raj with all its cruelties towards the Indian people.  At the heart of this display is the history of the people who fought for freedom across the centuries, leading up to the role of Gandhi in the Independence Movement.  As a British citizen you feel ashamed of what happened (although it was no different from what happened in other colonies ruled by the British or other nations).  It is quite difficult to move through this section reading of the atrocities with an Indian national standing by your side.  But the overwhelming reaction of the Indian people to you is so positive – they love the British and see themselves as our friends, quite often remarking on all of the good things that were brought to India during the Raj and which now form a British heritage which is one of the foundation stones of the modern India.  It is really quite humbling.

“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good”  – Mahtma Gandhi

This section of the museum is so full of information to read that your brain is already suffering overload when you reach the section dedicated to Gandhi.  It is probably not a bad idea to leave and get a coffee (or have lunch) then come back refreshed for this equally moving display of manuscripts, photos, paintings, sculptures, and quotations of Gandhi along with copies of many of his letters.  The life of Gandhi is portrayed through 124 photographs and the carefully selected notes with them give a deeper understanding of this remarkable man.  Also in the collection are 14 original artefacts used by Gandhi including his glasses, a pair of his sandals and the blood stained dhoti which he was wearing when he was assassinated (the cloth is sealed in a vacuum in a class case).

“Man lives freely only by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him”  – Mahatma Gandhi

As you exit the museum there is a display of people who have taken on board the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and used them to mould their own political beliefs and actions – including Martin Luther King Jr who spent a month in India and visited the museum, and also President Obama who recently visited India and spoke of his admiration and respect for Gandhi.

I really do recommend a visit to the museum if you are ever in Madurai.

“We must become the change we want to see”  – Mahatma Gandhi

Statue of Gandhi outside the Museum

Bonnet macaques – Indias little gremlins!

I recently accompanied some guests on one of our tours, and during that time we visited Thekkady which is on the border of the Periyar Wildlife Park; but you don’t have to go into the park to see wildlife!

On my hotel balcony!

Right outside our hotel was a troop of bonnet macaque which get their name from the tuft of hair on the top of their head which looks a bit like a hat. These monkies can only be found in India. They sometimes eat small invertebrates like worms and insects, they even chase flying grasshoppers; they are also keen on fruits and nuts, seed, cereals and flowers. They have little fear of humans where the two species live closely side by side and the macaque has a reputation of being a nuisance – stealing food, getting into houses and causing damage etc. Of course it doesn’t help that tourists often encourage them by feeding them!

Troop of Bonnet Macaqure monkies, Kerala

From what we could see this appears to be the season for the bonnet macaques to give birth as there were a number of very young babies, (just a few days old). Females give birth to just one young at a time, and the baby has the distinct look of a gremlin about it!.

From the supposed age of the younger female and her behaviour I would guess that she is the one year old daughter of the mother in the following photos. She was very proud and possessive of her new little brother and spent a lot of time watching how her mother handled him before trying it herself. The best way to learn how to be a good mum before she grows up!

One could almost imagine these two mothers at a ‘mothers and babies club’ back in the UK!

South India Tour with a difference

Hi, I’m back!! It’s been a busy week which meant I couldn’t really find the time for a decent post.

Why so busy? Well, we own a company in the UK called South India Tours. We currently have a group of 10 travelling on a 21 day holiday with us, and they have just spent 6 nights at Lakeside. They are a great bunch of people who were combining a holiday in South India with a visit to some charity projects which they support.  The charity was started by the previous owner of Lakeside in the 1960’s and has educated thousand of children who would otherwise have had no hope of a decent future.

Our manager, Kennedy, has gone offf with them on the final leg of their holiday so now I only have a few guests and can find the time to get back online!  Took a lovely walk this morning to enjoy the warm spring weather – and the great views around here.

Kamarajar Dam