The ex-French colony of Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it’s now called) is a typical Tamil town in many ways. It’s not the friendliest place I’ve ever been. When I arrive I spend hours looking for budget accommodation and eventually find what must be the cheapest room in town, for about a quarter of the standard price. I ask at the Ashram (traditionally a type of Hindu hermitage) in the center if I can stay there or they could help me find somewhere but they’re unhelpful, uselessly pointing me in a direction of an expensive guesthouse. There was a time, a few decades back, when Ashrams opened their doors to travelers who could stay for a few days on a donation basis but those times are long gone – it’s seems the spiritual integrity of them have degenerated since then and they’ve become rackets. Cashrams would be a more appropriate name for them now. I spend my days reading and lazily wondering around while I wait for my friend Danny to arrive from the north. I met Danny last year in Turkey, on a farm we both volunteered at. From Missouri, US, she’s been traveling for 2 years and came to India months ago. Hanging out with her and hearing all about what the north of the country is something I’m looking forward to as I don’t get talking to any other travelers in Pondicherry. We’re both aiming to find somewhere to volunteer near the city but when she arrives we decide it’s not worth the effort as all the places we’re interested in are charging extortionate amounts to volunteer, well beyond what it costs to feed and accommodate us. Instead we stay a few more days in the city, exploring the often hectic streets of the centre and decide to move on up the coast to a quieter spot.
In Mamallapuram the hectic urban pace of life continues in another touristic Tamil town on the coast. Initially it’s not what we were hoping for, as the familiar calls of “Yes friend?”, “You want room?”, and “Where you go?” from touts and Tuk-Tuk drivers are a constant irritating reminder that we’re foreign and in a tourist town. After some hard haggling we spend night among this insanity before hunting down a local family guesthouse in the rustic backstreets of the old village, on the outskirts of the newer town. It’s a welcome, peaceful break and exactly what we’re looking for, although the regular power cuts ensure it’s often sweltering at night when there’s no fan going.
There’s plenty of stuff to see in Mamallapurum. The place has been a centre of stone carving for centuries and has endless local workshops with massive statues of Buddhas, Ganeshes, Tigers and the likes which are exported throughout India. There’s also some interesting stone temples and unique geological features in the surrounding landscape.
In Tamil villages, it’s common for the woman of the house to decorate their doorsteps with intricate designs using rice powder, as a type of blessing for the household. The perfect symmetry and range of some of these works of art are mind-boggling considering they’re made by slowly dropping the powder in lines by hand. Every morning the remnants of old designs are washed away and new ones created.
Before moving on from Mamallapuram, we spend a couple of nights with a host who owns a guesthouse on the coast. Every morning the beech comes to life as fishermen sit talking in groups and prepare for the day ahead. It’s a nice end to our time here before moving on up the coast to India’s 3rd largest city, Chennai (Madras). On the bus through the expansive suburbs we pass endless high rise apartment, office and hotel complexes and construction sites – surreal monstrosities compared to the tightly packed towns and villages we’d just passed through. The property boom is being fueled by India’s ever-expanding middle-classes who have globalised aspirations and all the materialist trappings that entails. The contrast between the two Indias is stark; one traditional labouring class whose many customs and ways of life have remained more or less unchanged for centuries, and the other ‘upwardly mobile’ class who work for Western corporations (mainly in the IT sector) and live in shiny, soulless gated communities with security guards and swimming pools, where maids and cleaners from the lower classes cater for their needs. It’s into this air conditioned world Danny and I enter and stay for a few days. Our host and his flat mates, all young professionals/students, kindly provide us with everything from food to internet access; it feels like we’re suddenly cocooned from the real life of the crazy metropolis that is Chennai but we don’t complain. From what I see of it, Chennai is a nightmare of a city – overcrowded, manic, dirty, sweltering, polluted, crammed, claustrophobic, noisy, ugly. I don’t see any redeeming features. Our hosts from the north of India are still struggling to adjust to life in the Tamil south, where they speak a different language and have a more insular culture. Danny, who has a flight to Thailand booked, braves the city for another couple of days after I leave to get a sleeper train north to Bangalore. After her stories about Rajasthan and Punjab, I’m excited to be finally leaving the south and entering different parts of the sub-continent.