I thought a road trip would be an excellent way to take in the temples from north to south, east to west of Tamil Nadu. Turned out to be an experience I am unlikely to forget for a long time to come. I will try to stay with the positive but I won’t be doing my reader justice if I didn’t tell it like it was. So let’s have a good laugh about it, shall we?
It was the December school holidays and that meant I and my backpack were ready for yet another adventure. As often is the case, I didn’t really have anything planned so I was spoiled for choice. Where to go this time? How about a tour of the temples for which the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, is famous for? That sounded interesting but not when I have to join a tour group.
Now, I like traveling solo so the next best thing was to think about how I could chart a taxi and driver for myself so that the trip is tailored according to my itinerary, taking in the temples that I wanted to see, moving from one town to another, taking it easy. Would that work? It should. When I looked at the maps, some of the towns were within easy reach of one another which meant I could do a day trip for the first town and an overnight for the second. And then get on the road again.
Which is what I did eventually and which I very much doubt I will ever hire a taxi and its driver who will hold you to ransom somewhere along the way, changing your itinerary to suit his ability to earn a commission if he brought a customer there, even if you said no a hundred times, it just doesn’t seem to sink in into that thick head!
I mean, how bad can it get when I didn’t even realise I was being driven into Kerala until we were at the border crossing? This is what happens when you don’t know the lingo and don’t understand what people are saying right under your nose.
Treated like an ATM
In all my trips to India, I have never been so badly treated like an ATM. On this trip I discovered that if people were friendly, money was the only reason. It’s about how much they could get off you. Every which way I turned, I was like a cash machine. I don’t think I have ever met so many ‘crooks’ in one place.
Nor have I ever had an experience I could describe as nasty. But here it is. As much as I try to understand that this is just another effect of poverty, I think travelling as an Asian woman alone in Tamil Nadu meant that I was fair game. I have travelled the north of India all on my own, and I can’t say I was ever this badly treated. I was never taken advantage of, not like here.
Roused in the night, taken for a prostitute!!!
Heck, I was even roused from my sleep in the wee hours in Tiruchirapalli because the policeman wanted to check my passport. My driver later told me the police wanted to make sure I wasn’t a Chinese prostitute. That was as bad as bad could get!
Okay, so there is really no basis for comparison between the north and south of India because they are such polar opposites whether it’s due to climate, culture, or historical influences. But, in my experience, the northerners have always come across as gentler folks. Sure, money is important up north as well but they don’t go after it in the same was as the people in the south do. Not in this aggressive and repulsive way.
Here in the southern state of Tamil Nadu what I saw was like a huge marketplace and after a while I am sorry to say that the temples were just a part of the economy. Now, I am not one who worships clay feet nor am I easily awed by what is touted as spiritual. I judge for myself with my own heightened senses and what I am sensing here has nothing to do with the spiritual.
Very bad men indeed
From the old man who would purposely brush his elbow against my breast every chance he got as he guided me through the temple, to the crazy priest who chased me down 101 steps just because I refused to accede to his demand that I put more onto his platter even though what I gave was far more than his usual takings! Golly gee! How bad can it get?
Everywhere you go, men will size you up. They will stare and then they will get up to approach you. At first I allowed myself to at least engage in conversation with them. But there is no conversation. Only a blatant demand for money. It’s not even an asking.
Being trailed and stalked is no fun. I found that I couldn’t even walk far without someone trailing after me. It got so bad that I couldn’t even walk along the beach in broad daylight. I have never been so boldly accosted in all my travels in India as I had been in Tamil Nadu.
The last straw was my driver changing my itinerary yet again and I ended up in Kerala! when that wasn’t ever in the agreement. Then it dawned on me that the travel agent and him were in cahoots together. They had it all worked out before the trip even started because if not, how was it that he knew to bring the pink document file? The same file that the agent handed to him before we set off? And which he is now pulling a document for the border crossing guard to examine? Heck!
At that point, I decided I would cut everything short and have my crook of a driver drive through the night back to my room at Mahabalipuram where I had left some of my things. The next day, I went to the agent to complain and he had the cheek to look contrite. I also arranged for transport to take me out of Mahabalipuram to Chennai for my flight home. I thought that was it.
The irony of it all
But along the way, the second driver had to show me this temple on top of 101 steps. He said, you just have to see this temple.
And that’s where my Tamil Nadu temple trail ended with a bang so nasty that it topped all the other nasty experiences I have had up to that point.
And which confirmed without a shred of doubt that I was really only an ATM. When I had to run away from a ‘priest’ who demanded more money and became aggressive when I refused to give in to his demands?
The good part – the temples
By the time I was conned into Kerala, I was glad a big part of the temples that I had wanted to see was seen. By then we had already passed through all the major towns like Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli. I was quite ready to go home.
The only parts of Tamil Nadu I didn’t get to see was Kanyakumari at the southern end as well as the hill stations to the west in Ooty and Kodaikanal, places I had specified in my itinerary and which were blatantly flouted.
Still, at Mahabalipuram, I finally saw for myself why the Arjuna Penance was so famous. The carvings were still as fresh as the day they were carved because of the hardness of the stone. From what I could see very little in terms of details were lost to time.
Often, in the other towns, the really ancient temples like those dating back to the Chola period were quite badly eroded. Yet here they were still so well preserved despite being exposed to the elements on a daily basis. Now, this is something that baffles me no end. In India, time and time again, there seems to be no sense of preservation. All these great treasures are just left as they are! In rain and sunshine. It’s crazy.
How did they do it
Often, I would stand in the middle of a temple and wonder what made people do what they did, all these carvings, all the intricate lintels and posts, the tiny portals, small steps, and cool, cool interiors. Did people in the past build temples for the same reason they build them today? I read somewhere that temples in the past were built to create a sacred space that drew celestial energies together into a powerhouse for spiritual transformation.
Overall verdict: I’ll be smarter the next time round
Incidentally, my colleague, a Singaporean Indian was also travelling in Tamil Nadu round about the same time. Even though she was with her husband, she didn’t fare any better. She swore she would never ever go near India again.
As for me, we’ll see.
~ ॐ ~