January 17

Before coming to India we had a short stopover in Muscat, Oman, which neither of us has ever been to before and which is rapidly becoming a modern city as buildings, including a state of the art airport, rise from the desert. In the Old Town we visited the well designed museum with its antiquities and a collection of dhows and other items relating to Oman’s maritime history.

Then we saw the Royal Palace of the Sultan who has done so much to modernise the country whilst retaining Arab traditions, before investigating the bazaar in the main shopping area.

Muscat is a most interesting place, positioned between the sea and the desert hills, where a chain of hilltop forts is still visible and we wished that we’d had the time to go into the desert and see more of the stunning scenery.


Janaury 18-21

The capital of Kerala, Trivandrum is a relatively gentle entry to Indian urban life, being not especially large,  and reputedly the best administered city in India - certainly, traffic appears less frenetic and generally the city is cleaner and better organised than most others.  As photos in the old Royal palace show, it has long outgrown the plans laid out with wide tree lined streets, when it became the capital of the Kingdom of Travancore in the mid-19th century.  It was already an ancient city then and still retains a warren of narrow streets and markets, which inevitably we visited. 

A busy few days included visiting the museum complex where large crowds at the gateway were shopping and watching girls dancing to an impromptu boy band.  The museum was founded by Lord Napier and nearby is the zoo which the Maharaja of the time built in order to entice his subjects to visit the museum, successfully, to judge by the large numbers of all ages diligently looking at ancient bronzes. The animals in this zoo were the inspiration for The Life of Pi by Yann Martel who spent several months studying them whilst living in the city.  Nick visited the somewhat dusty and charmingly out of date science museum along with masses of enthusiastic small children.  All these places forbid photography.

Non Hindus are not permitted into the extremely ancient Vishnu Temple, next to which the Royal Palace was built in the mid-19th century when the capital was moved from Padmanabhapuram.  Here too photography is restricted to the exterior.  The long low, mainly wooden structure whose floors are sealed with an impermeable mixture of charcoal, egg white and various oils, is cool, well ventilated and filled with an impressive assortment of paintings, ceramics, ivory and furnishings, including a throne of Bohemian glass and another of carved ivory, whose companion is in the V&A.  Ivory was also used for an exquisite cot and a cradle as well as for weapons and table-ware.  

We drove out to the beach at Kovallum, once a beautiful paradise, as pictures in the Royal Palace show, but now a crowded resort.


From Kerala to Tamil Nadu

22nd January

Well rested after a few days in the excellent Hycinth (sic) Hotel we took the road to Madurai, climbing steadily to the southern extremity of the Western Ghats. For much of the earlier part of the route there were road works, new house construction and a general impression of change underway and as elsewhere in the region, temples, mosques and churches comfortably coexisting.

Beyond the Kallada Dam and a world of relatively tame jungle and rubber plants, the terrain began to fall away as we turned east. Soon we were approaching the dryer flat lands of the southern Deccan where all around paddy fields were under irrigation and rice was being harvested.


23rd -24th January

Arriving at Madurai's historic Meenakshee Amman Temple which, with its huge and colourful gate towers, dominates the city centre, is like stepping back in time or onto the set of a Bollywood movie - everywhere there is noise, music and brilliant colour, so that even the meanest street seller is a part of this aesthetically appealing, exciting and interesting ancient place.

The temple is sacred to Meenakshee, an avatar of Parvati and the wife of one of Shiva’s aspects. Although the origins of this Hindu temple of Dravidian design, are very ancient, most of the huge structure dates back to the 17th century, when it was repaired, renovated and enlarged by a ruler of the Nayak dynasty, following a rebuilding after it had been plundered by the army of the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century. This same ruler also constructed the adjacent palace, partly in the Mughal style, which is now only half its original size, yet still impressive, in spite of being home to innumerable roosting pigeons.

The surrounding streets are free of traffic, but are nevertheless incredibly busy and bustling, as this area is home to the many flower and incense vendors who provide the means for the offerings or puja.

Beneath the elaborate columns of a now disused portion of the temple, are several stalls selling local cotton and which the adjacent tailors can make into shirts overnight.

We had been told about the shirtmaker by a friend, and as the cotton was such good quality Nick had himself measured up in almost no time at all and the following morning we collected the shirts - what service...

The Gandhi Memorial Museum, Madurai

25th January

The memorial museum to Gandhi is housed in the historic Tamukkan Palace, which was built around 1670 by Rami Mangammal of the resurgent Hindu Nayak dynasty. It is one of five Gandhi Memorial Museums in India and is in Madurai because of the particular significance of this town in the life of Gandhiji. It was here in 1921 that for the first time Gandhi adopted the loincloth which thereafter was his accustomed dress. It was here too that Gandhi won one of the great battles on behalf of the Untouchables, when in 1946 he visited the Meenaskshi Temple together with these Harijans to whom entry was permitted thereafter.

The Museum was opened in 1955 and apart from containing a library with material relevant to the great man’s life and study facilities for research scholars, it contains a detailed record of his life with effectively a visual biography. There are some of his personal belongings, including a part of his bloodstained loincloth, worn on the day of his assassination. There is also a detailed, indeed graphic account, of India’s fight for freedom from the British. Schoolchildren are brought here to learn about Gandhi and his contribution to India’s freedom. Judging by the groups that we saw, they start to learn about him when they are as young as four.


26th January

Whilst in Madurai we realised that we could easily reach Rameshwaram to the east, on the island of Pamban in an afternoon. Apart from the presence of the 12th. century Rameshwaram Temple, another great temple to Shiva, this is the place where, in the ancient Sanskrit epic, beloved of Indians and popularly televised, Lord Rama is supposed to have started his journey to Sri Lanka. There, with the help of an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, he retrieved his wife Sita, who had been abducted by the wicked Ravana of Lanka.

The island is linked to the Indian mainland by a bridge. Until the late 1980’s there was a ferry boat from the island to Sri Lanka, but the war there brought this to an end. Much earlier, supposedly until the 15th. century, when the channel was deepened by a storm, there was a bridge to Sri Lanka, which could be passed on foot. Known as ‘Adam’s Bridge’, it is still marked as such on maps. One can see the chain of small islands virtually forming a bridge to Sri Lanka and we thought how easily we might have travelled there instead of by plane from the south.

Not being Hindu we were unable to go into the temple, but we could see the celebrants out in the sea which they enter directly from the temple. Sadly, much of the surroundings are badly neglected and the once beautiful beaches are largely covered in rubble.


27-29th January

The region of Chettinad lies in a semi-arid plain north east of Madurai and south of Tanjore. It is centred on the small towns of Karaikkudi and Kanadukathan and 73 surrounding villages. Albeit in much reduced circumstances, some of the 110,000 Chettiars living here still inhabit the extraordinarily grand homes of their 19th and early 20th century ancestors.

Our serendipitous introduction to this interesting but relatively little known area was when we first experienced the cuisine of the region whilst visiting Tamil Nadu last year. It was only later that we learned about their spectacular houses, or in some cases, palaces, and conceived the desire to see them.

Between the mid-19th and mid 20th century, these houses were built in their home villages and towns by wealthy Chettiar merchants who had made fortunes in Ceylon and elsewhere in the British Empire. In general the architecture and fittings were designed to display the wealth and sophistication of the owner. To an Indian design of a series of halls and enclosed courtyards, imported materials were often added, including marble, glass, teak, iron and tiles which were brought from Italy, Burma, Belgium, England and elsewhere.

In recent years there has been a movement to safeguard this fantastic heritage, as many of the buildings are decaying and sorely in need of restoration. To this end, application has been made to the UNESCO World Heritage list of India. Whilst this is a worthy endeavour, spearheaded by two French architects who have restored most exquisitely one of these villas, such listing more often than not encourages mass tourism and the concommitant demise of all that is so unusual and charming about such a place.

Already there have been several less than beautiful restorations for use as guest houses, but we were fortunate to stay at the French renovated Saratha Villa, still owned by the family, but leased out. While we were there we finally had Chettinad cuisine again, though with a French twist, and we had a lesson in making Chicken Madras.

Before leaving the area we tried to visit the so called Raja’s Palace in Kanadukathan, built by a banker who was made the Raja of Chettinad by the British in the 1920’s, but it was closed as the family was visiting.

Cape Comorin/Kanyakumari

30th January

Although a journey along the Great Southern Trunk Road to Cape Comorin had sounded Kiplingesque, the reality of this Indian motorway was more prosaic, and the Cape Comorin of colonial atlases is now known as Kanyakumari.

The southernmost point of India, it marks the confluence of three seas, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian and the Laccadive Seas. The area has long been a trading centre and in the first century CE the Graeco Roman geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria, noted that it was famous for pearl fishing and trade in pearls. Much later, in 1740, when the fishing village at this place was under the control of the Rajah of Tutcorin, the Dutch East India Company established a trading and transhipment post here long before the area came under control of the British who then ruled it through the Travancore Royal family.

It is a great centre of pilgrimage and the Temple of Kanyakumari near the shoreline is dedicated to the goddess Kumari Amman, a sister of Krishna, and dates back three thousand years. The site is dominated by a 95 ft statue of Thiruvalluvar, the legendary Tamil poet and saint. It stands upon a 38 foot rock, so that the combined height is 133 feet, symbolising the 133 chapters in his great work the Thirukkural. It has stood there since the turn of the millennium and has withstood the force of the 2004 tsunami.

Interestingly, there is a statue of Thiruvalluvar in London, in the garden of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he sits cross-legged, meditating. Also out at sea on a rock is the memorial to Swami Vivekananda, a spiritual leader and philosopher who meditated here uninterrupted from 25th to 27th December 1892.

It was at Kanyakumari that the urn containing Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was kept for public viewing before immersion and on this site a temple was built in 1948.

In spite it being such a holy place it seemed not to have a numinous quality and is very lively, with women doing their washing on the rocks and with many shops, stalls and hawkers selling food,clothing, memorabilia and trinkets.

The Snake Temple, Nagercoil.

31st January

The worship of the widely feared snake is certainly well attested throughout the world, particularly in ancient cultures and still in India today. We were very fortunate to have been allowed entry into the actual temple of Nagarajah as opposed to merely the precincts. Perhaps it was because few people were there on that day and at that time, so our ‘temple offering’ was gratefully received by the priests and in we went, after removing our shoes.

The interior was dark and only gradually were we able to make out the shapes of innumerable carved cobras decorating the columns and altars. Bells were rung, prayers were said, offerings made and no photography was allowed, but beyond the knowledge that there were real live snakes in a special pit adjacent to the building, the overall impression was that it was quite small and almost domestic in its simplicity, apart from the snake effigies of course.

Perhaps more interesting to us was the sight of several well dressed, often young women, though there was the odd man too, making offerings to Nagarajah at the shrine within the precincts. Here, around the sacred peepul tree there were snake statues of various shapes and sizes over which entire packets of turmeric were being poured, followed by a libation of coconut milk. It seems that such offerings are made to help prevent or get rid of skin disorders associated with this deity - perhaps because of the ability of snakes to shed their skins. Given also that tumeric has feminine qualities in Hindu culture, perhaps some of the prayers were in connection with the desire for children. As in the interior of the temple however, it was the comfortable, almost domestic way in which these offerings were made, that surprised us.

Finally we visited the beautiful Padmanabhapuram Palace, the home of the maharajahs of Travancore when this town was their capital. Built of teak in traditional design, with exquisite carving and deep sloping roofs for shade and coolness, it was constructed in the 16th century, and then rebuilt a century later. A further century on, the capital was moved to Trivandrum, where a new palace was built.

On leaving Padmanabhapuram we noticed a small temple to Ganesha, one of the most widely revered deities in the Hindu pantheon, and indeed Jains and Buddhists are also devoted to him. Regarded as the remover of obstacles and as a patron of the arts and sciences and of writing and learning, we felt that he would surely bestow good fortune upon us for our journey to Sri Lanka the following day.

Sri Lanka

"Marigold Hotel" - February 1-8

Koggalla Lake

We arrived at the house by the lake just in time for a lunch party and to be introduced to old friends and new acquaintances. From the terrace of the house the swimming pool with its gazebo appeared to merge into the lake. Three monitor lizards of varying sizes lumbered round the garden, chipmunks darted up and down the trees and a family of monkeys gambolled enthusiastically - perhaps too much so - on the roof, so that it sounded as though they were playing football with coconuts. Just the correct quantity of ice cooled the Gins & Tonic, the Sri Lankan curry was delicious and the pool water the perfect temperature.


The Road to the Sea

On days when we weren’t going on an excursion we walked to the railway line, crossed it, came to the Galle Road and that too we crossed, in order to arrive at a picture postcard stretch of beach, empty but for a few fishing boats and distant surfers. Lime juice at the small guesthouse followed the walk and swim, and then it was back past friendly people, pretty houses and sometimes there was washing or herbs and spices being dried. After lunch and a short siesta, we sat on the terrace nursing our long and chilled drinks while night fell suddenly.


Kahanda Kanda

We passed a sybaritic day having lunch at Kahanda Kanda on a tea plantation up in the low hills inland from Galle. This exquisite hotel is one of two belonging to George Cooper, whose family were tea planters in colonial Ceylon. After exploring those roots he bought land, built the hotel and then another by the sea and has for some years also run a delightful clothing and gift boutique in Galle.


A visit to Galle

Hedonistic consumerism continued the following day when we visited Galle, largely to look at beautiful cotton and linen clothes, buy presents and have lunch at one of the restaurants in delightful old Colonial houses. We had already visited the Maritime Museum and it was becoming too hot to do anything other than return to our house by the lake and cool down in the pool.


More 'dolce far niente’

There is probably a Sri Lankan expression for the pleasure of doing nothing, but I don’t know it. Suffice it to say that there were a couple more days of walks, lazing on the terrace, idle conversations and reading, and a visit from Nick's sister and her husband before we left for our next venue on the west coast.


9th - 19th February

Once settled into our simple but comfortable hotel by the sea, the most arduous task of the day has been to get up in time for yoga, or in Nick’s case, diving. Between these activities we meet for breakfast under a frangipani on the lawn. Along the verge of grass and sand, palm trees like great paper cutouts shade a pristine pale gold beach reaching far into the distance, and onto which an acquamarine sea laps gently.

This is truly a lotus eating existence or ‘slow life’. My days are punctuated by walks, water, sunbathing, reading, tuk tuk rides to the village and visits to the ayurvedic centre. Here there is an incredible range of herbal health products and treatments from panchakarma, a traditional form of detoxification that supposedly cures just about everything, to soothing massages, my preference.

In spite of doing not very much, suddenly it’s evening and once again we are sitting on the lawn, cold drink in hand and watching the sun set into the sea. I had thought that Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’ was specific to the Aegean, but here it is again, that indescribable colour of dusky purple grape skin suffused with sea shades and rays of the dying light.

This beauty seems almost unreal, until the crashing of surf reminds one of the latent power of the sea and of the damage wrought along this coast by the tsunami of 2004.

We were reminded of this when visiting the old fish market and the fishing harbour of Beruwala where even now damage is still evident on the perimeter, above which, on the headland stands the ancient Kechimalai Mosque. The large loss of life left many orphans, some of whose care was supported by donations from the mosque.

Reputedly the oldest mosque in Sri Lanka, this simple white building in an ancient Arab style marks the place where, in 1024 Arab traders from the Yemen arrived and established the first Muslim settlement in the country. Muslims now form some 10% of Sri Lanka’s population. Traditionally there has been tolerance between religious groups, but in 2018 there was another manifestation of the violence that had taken place between Buddhists and Muslims in 2014.

Yet this is a country that every lunar month has a public holiday on a Poya Day, the name give to the Buddhist full moon holiday, when practising Buddhists meditate and supposedly reflect on the most important precepts of their religion - among them, not to harm any living being. Our departure from the hotel coincided with Navam Poya Day.