Monthly Archives: February 2010

Forts and palaces

Although temples dominated our itinerary, we also saw some more secular monuments along the way.

The largest was a fort built over several centuries at Gingee, a small town in the middle of nowhere. The outer defensive wall was a triangle measuring several kilometers on each side, with walls over 10 meters thick. Inside, many layers of imposing defences were built on three mountains that rose out of the plains. We climbed the 1200 steps up the highest of these, unbearably hot even on a winter morning. These defences seemed impregnable, but they did not ultimately stop anyone, as the fort passed from Indian to French to British hands. I can only guess that in a determined siege, walls and mountains count less than access to food, water, and local support.

Other forts seemed to have a less military purpose. Trichy is famous for its Rock Fort, built to overlook the city by the seventeenth-century Nayak kings. Most of the construction along the 400 steps to the summit was temples, however, and the castle at the top seemed more for living than defence.

In Tanjore, the same Chola king who built the temple with the great tower also built a palace. Most of what remains today, however, is from the 17th to 19th centuries and is slowly rotting even though the king's descendants are still living inside.

Madurai has an impressive palace built by the Nayak kings in the 17th century. Much of it was torn down to reuse building materials, a common sport of both Indian and British rulers. But the main hall is still impressive enough to serve as backdrop for innumerable Bollywood movies, one of which was filming an assassination scene while we visited.

The most remarkable was a forgotten palace in Ramanathapuram, a small town on the road back from Rameswaram. Only one guidebook thought to mention it, and it was so obscure that our driver had to ask directions to find it down dirt streets. And yet inside, every wall and ceiling was covered with impressive 17th-century murals. They were unlit and unmaintained, with piles of wood scattered around the floor. The Architectural Survey of India's only interest seemed to be employing two people to sell tickets to the occasional visitor.

Women’s dress

I am struck by women’s dress and the manner in which it juxtaposes modesty and display. Almost without exception, south Indian women who I’ve seen out in public wear traditional clothing – either the 6.5m sari draped over a short sleeve, close-fitting, midriff-baring top or the three piece salwar kamise – long or elbow length sleeve top of varying lengths, trousers varying from baggy to tights, and a long shawl draped in such a way that both ends hang down the back . Married women generally wear the sari and single women the salwar kamise.

For foreigner women or the odd local women who wear western clothing, trousers are okay but shorts, bare legs and bare shoulders are considered immodest – even though daytime temperatures are hot throughout the year. Except in the most popular tourist destinations, foreigners are fairly rare and the locals seem to enjoy looking us over from a distance. Northern Hemisphere tourists who choose to wear tank tops and short pants are either ignorant of local sensibilities or choose to ignore them.

Here in the south, the center of silk weaving, saris of thin silk are common dress for shopping and visiting temples. Colors range across the spectrum from deep red, orange, purple and green, to brilliant red and yellow, to pastels of every hue. Designs are woven into the silk saris and always include a border and often an intricate design on the portion of the sari that drapes down over the back. Designs are made with gold thread and often include sequins and shiny beads. Necklaces, ear rings and large filigree nose studs are of various grades of real gold. Jewelry also includes rings on the fingers and toes and ankle bracelets of small bells that jingle with each step. Unlike in Mediterranean countries where traditionally dressed older women often wear black, white haired grandmothers wear saris as bright as those of their granddaughters.

School girls wear simple uniforms – blouse and mid-calf length skirt or simple cotton salwar kamise. Otherwise out in public with parents, little girls wear knee length dresses or salwar kamise (without the shawl) often decorated with ruffles, sequins or other things that sparkle. Older girls wear salwar kamise or blouses with modest length sleeves and long skirts. The fabrics are often silks of beautiful colors, textures and decorations.

The smattering of Muslim women in their long black robes, black headscarves, and for some a veil over the nose and mouth, stand out like black crows among peacocks. Their girl children dress in bright colors like Hindu children. I can only imagine that under the black shroud, the Muslim women are just as colorful as their Hindu sisters.

Rough and ready hotels

The leaders of Rough and Ready Tours actually prefer nice hotels. We can't afford to stay in five-star luxury, but we don't need to go to the bohemian extreme either. In India, $30 can buy a decent air-conditioned room, sometimes the best in town.

But often things don't work perfectly. A few good hotels have internet connections, but the routers are usually broken or working only in the lobby. Hot water might be turned on only a few hours each morning, and it can take forever to reach the tap. Better are the “geysers” (pronounced “geezers”), personal water heaters that are almost as fast as flash heaters. But these are often turned on by complex switches that only the hotel staff know.

Hotel staff can be unfamiliar with modern appliances. We struggled to get a working remote control for an air conditioner. The bellman brought us several and seemed convinced they were working even though they had no effect on the unit. It was not until I pointed out that they were from a different manufacturer that he realized he had to find a different one.

Service can be spotty. Because of a festival one day, we were forced to pay extra for a deluxe room in an upscale hotel on the edge of town. The room was great, but their restaurant's service was the worst I have seen anywhere in the world.

We were the first people in the restaurant when we arrived a little before 7. We had to fight to get a menu, which was unnecessary because they did not start serving food until 7:30 and even then almost nothing was available. After a long interview in sign language, we convinced the waiter to bring a small starter, thinking we could take a minute to decide on the rest.

Big mistake. The waiter disappeared for about 20 minutes and finally came back with the snack. But nothing could convince him to take our order. He went back and forth to other tables pretending to do something. Each time he would then go back to the kitchen window and write on his pad for 10 minutes for no particular reason. By the time we physically grabbed him and gave him our order, several other customers had stormed out of the restaurant.

Amazingly, our food showed up almost immediately.

And then there was the Ritz. All the guidebooks agreed that one temple town had no good hotels. But two books suggested the Hotel Ritz. We made a reservation and had good hopes when we pulled up to the “Al Ritz” sign.

We should have moved on at the first sign of trouble. The first room they showed had an air conditioner, but it blew only hot air. The secod room was very smokey. In a third room, the a/c worked but the ceiling fan did not. In the fourth room, they couldn't get the a/c going. Finally they found a fifth room where everything more or less worked. At least they had plenty of free rooms.

We got out our sleeping bags to avoid the bed bugs. The sheets and pillowcases felt like they hadn't been washed in a month. In a few places we could see throgh holes to the mattress.

As we settled in for the night, we noticed small blood stains on the wall where previous residents had swatted mosquitos. Sure enough, the mosquitos joined the bed bugs in bothering us all night even though we turned the ceiling fan on high. They were probably coming in through a large hole in the bathroom wall.

Flushing the toilet was also amusing. The plumbing had cracked in such a way that half the water spurted out the back of the basin. Fortunately, Indian hotel bathrooms have drains in the floors.

We were glad it was for only one night.