Conservation, at what cost?

A quick glimpse at a couple of small temples, to continue my series on the recent Tamil Nadu road trip. Our host at the Swamimalai resort, knowing our interest, had recommended them highly for their architectural details (temple carvings mainly). So that evening, we headed to the Pullamangai temple near Ayyampettai, half an hour’s drive from Kumbakonam – and what a delight that was. Predating the Thanjavur Big Temple, Pullamangai has one of the most exquisite statues of Parvati (as Mahishasuramardhini) I have ever seen. Beautiful, confident, sexy.

Durga

At first sight, the temple was not very promising, with the outer gate painted in “modern” colours and a priest who could only be called to the temple with a special appointment over phone. The interior of this Shiva temple was dark and dank, the smell of lamp oil and years of neglect hanging in the air. The husband and I exchanged puzzled looks: were we at the right place? what was so special about this temple?

It was only when we walked around this diminutive temple that its beauty became apparent – rich carvings from Ramanyana, Shiva Puranam and Vishnu Puranam on every inch of space on the outer walls, and finally, around the corner, the Durga statue we had come to see.

Pullamangai

Nataraja

A total worthwhile excursion.

In contrast, the second one, the Nageswaran temple inside Kumbakonam was a serious disappointment. While Pullamangai was not maintained well and did not attract hundreds of devotees, there was still a sense of history and (dare I say it?) piety there. Nageswaran temple, built in the shape of a chariot, does have its regular worshippers but any history or beauty had been coloured into a senseless and garish mass. All in the name of conservation.

What a sad state, when the trustees of such temples cannot recognise the inherent beauty of the brown stone and detailed architecture.

Kumbakonam

Insipid tea: Chai, Chai disappoints

Chai Chai by Bishwanath Ghosh is a book I picked up with a lot of expectations – ‘Travels in places where you stop but never get off’, is what the cover proclaims, promising glimpses into the small town India that one hears and reads about all the time but rarely thinks about.

To write about small, anonymous towns is a task that requires a lot of skill – and while it is commendable that the writer had the courage to take on such a topic, he just does not have what it takes to make it work. The descriptions of places he visits and people he comes across are all in broad brush strokes with no nuances to bring them alive to the reader.

For instance, he starts his journey with Mughal Sarai – a major station during his childhood train trips from Kanpur to Calcutta – and through this section, there are repeated references to the notoriety of this place – we read about pickpockets, extortionists and the police-criminal nexus. Mughal Sarai is full of thieves, the author says – but how so more than other towns, even in eastern UP? What about the generic brown badlands of Omkara and the Gorakhpur of Ishqiya? There is nothing to tell me what Mughal Sarai is really about – what makes it different – apart from being a large junction for trains?

Ghosh takes his brief too literally – he gets off at the places that most people see only as stations to stop and stretch their legs – but does nothing more. For instance, he is rapidly bored by Arakkonam and Guntakal and says there is nothing to keep him there beyond a couple of hours. Really, nothing? If the excuse is that he does not understand Tamil or Telugu and so does not manage to get under the skin of these towns, then what is he doing there in the first place?

The tone is monotonous and tiresome after a few pages – all the pieces all have similar narratives of alighting at the railway station at ungodly hours and spending lonely evenings inside seedy bars drinking whiskey while eavesdropping and making severe judgments on the people around. Forget differences between the towns he visits – there is nothing to say how the towns in the North were distinct from those in the deep South. For, really, South India is not so much about chai-chai but idlivadaaapppi (idli – vada – kaapi).

Ghosh shows an utter lack of empathy – and after a point, even curiosity – for the people he meets, their lives, hopes and mistakes. So he descends into banalities about the “shameless man” in Mughal Sarai and the housewife-turned-prostitute in Itarsi who “could have easily used her housewifely good looks to find alternative ways of earning money”.

For a book with such a fascinating premise, Chai Chai sadly disappoints all the way. Thanks to the indifferent writing, small town India – the towns that nobody really knows – remains as obscure in my mind as ever.

The Sri Lanka holiday

So it’s been over a month now since I returned from Sri Lanka and I have not blogged about it. Have you been wondering? (and if not, why not?). The truth is, the entire holiday was slightly underwhelming and I have been mulling over what was not quite right – actually, I knew what was wrong even while in Sri Lanka but I have been trying to think objectively about it since my return.

A combination of many things really – it was raining heavily the first few days of the trip, I was in poor health (and had to visit a doctor in Colombo finally – the worst thing on a holiday)… but the main culprit – without which, the others would still have been alright – is that my travel planning agents had screwed up big time.

In my travels, I have rarely used a travel agent of any sort – except to book tickets and such basic requirements – and have been wary of them. To me, ‘travel agent’ has always spelt trouble – from minor bloopers, wrong dates, unkept promises all the way to blatant cheating, I had heard all the stories and sworn off them. The only reason I considered ivinca was that I was busy during that period and was glad to have someone plan and book for me (otherwise, I love the travel planning as much, or nearly as much as the actual travel!) – and I had met the owner / promoter who had spun a story of “we are not a booking agent – we are your holiday partners and will plan your entire trip for you based on your interests and requirements” – serves me right for falling for that.

So, finally what happened was – Murphy struck – in the form of the highly inefficient and unimaginative ivinca. And everything that could go wrong, pretty much did.

Sri Lanka itself falls flat, especially on the visual front, if you have traveled a lot within India – the feel of being in rural India, say a cleaner Kerala never left us through our time in the country. And for all that, given the kind of things I had been hearing and reading about it, I felt that it did not match those expectations.

However, what I did love about being in Sri Lanka was the buzz in the country about a peaceful and prosperous future – I was lucky to be there at the right time and the enthusiasm of a country that is enjoying peace after prolonged war is infectious. I also stayed at some wonderful hotels and resorts across the country (places I had chosen from user reviews on the internet – since the choices offered by ivinca had terrible reviews everywhere).

Anyway, I am back and still bitter about that experience – what irks me more than anything else was the initial response to my feedback from the partners at ivinca. It is just.not.acceptable. to not take responsibility for your mistakes – and it is worse to try passing it on to the customer. A customer who has paid big bucks for a premium package, I may add.

Here are some tips for you from a travel-agent-weary traveler, for what it is worth:

1. Choose wisely – Trust your initial impressions and judgment about the travel company / person you choose – I ignored my instincts that screamed that they were clueless but given my situation then, I went ahead. Talk to your agents, if possible, meet them a couple of times to discuss the itinerary together – and make sure that they are intelligent and understand your needs and expectations. This, I cannot stress enough, is critical.

2. Double check on the vehicle – If you are paying for a car and / or driver – check before you leave on what kind of car you are getting – we paid for a large car and ended up with a large car that was twelve years old – my husband and I were the only properly-functioning elements inside the car (and that too, not all the time!) – and this is in a country of swanky Mercedes and Toyotas for tourists.

3. Agree on your guide’s role – Have you paid for a guide? Is the driver going to act as your tour guide – according to the package? Do confirm these – since we paid for a driver-guide and ended up having to look for a separate guide at some places since our man did not feel inclined to step out of the car in the rain on those days.

We also ended up skipping a couple of important places from our itinerary thanks to, again, our guide’s machinations – and at that time, there was not much we could do to actually force him. In such cases, my advice to you is to call your agent and demand a replacement or repair of the situation. It is not a time to be nice or resigned (we were both, unfortunately).

4. Be prepared – Rain reminds me – there is nothing you can do about the weather – but do check likely weather conditions (especially possibility of rain) before you leave – and be prepared. Luckily for us, by the time we left for the hills, the skies had cleared up and we spent three glorious days among the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya.

5. Do your own research – Even if you go through a so-called trip planner, spend some time on the internet or asking friends who have traveled to the place for suggestions – what to do, and equally importantly, what not, special places to see, unmissables and suchlike.

For instance, December, when we went to Sri Lanka, is prime time to spot migratory whales on the Southern beaches. And our blessed holiday-planners had no idea – they did not suggest it (how could they – when they drafted my itinerary, none of them had actually visited Sri Lanka!), and in my lack of time, I had not bothered to ask around. By the time, I read about it and heard about it from several friends – as a total must-do, it was too late – our hotels were booked and there was no way of changing plans without a significant loss of money.

6. Discuss meal plans – About the hotels you finally choose, do check for proximity from tourist spots and places of your interest – what I mean is, we ended up in hotels that were gorgeous (Amaya Lake, Tea Factory) but miles from anywhere – including anywhere that serves food. And we were on an only-breakfast plan – combine this isolation with an uncooperative driver and you get a situation where you are forced to eat all meals at the hotel – and pay top-end, ridiculous hotel rates for food that you would rather avoid. By all means, choose the resorts and hotels that appeal to you, but discuss your meal plans with your travel agent – in case of far-flung locations, I recommend throwing in atleast one meal, say, dinner, along with your breakfast.

7. Avoid ivinca – After all this, I have only one bit of advice left – do not use ivinca. I regretted the day I decided to use their services for a holiday I was so looking forward to. Better holidays in every way? Sorry, but do you mean bitter?

As an aside, I find that my name used to feature on the blogroll of the ivinca blog – and has since disappeared. Shame on you, ivinca!

Also read: I had read this post about the tricks tour companies play – only I had never thought I would one day fall prey to these. Such is life…

Ladies Special

I came across this bit in a travel magazine recently about rooms for female travelers at the Movenpick Hotel in Hanoi. Sounded interesting. I have traveled enough on work and been alone at enough hotels in strange towns to know what feels like to hear that random knock on the door in the middle of the night. Perhaps there is some extra comfort, security, convenience – something – in these rooms for women. And so I read on.

So what do these rooms ‘revamped exclusively for women who travel on business’ offer? They come with extra make-up mirror, high-powered hair dryers and make-up removal kits.

And in one stroke, the needs of a bunch of ambitious, intelligent achievers who happen to be women have got equated to putting on and taking off make-up?

Proud of what heritage?

Independence day pleasantly spent at Karla caves near Lonavala. Well, mostly pleasantly. A drive on the Mumbai Pune expressway. A nicish climb up a hundred or so steps to reach the caves. Getting drenched in the rain all the way up and down.

And then the magnificent chaitya(chappel equivalent – Buddhist) at the end of the climb.

The chaitya - chappel or prayer hall

The principal cave is the largest Chaitya among Buddhist cave in the country, Being 15meters wide and 16 meters high. The most remarkable feature of the cave is its arched roof supported by wooden beams which have astonishingly survived the onslaught of elements for more than 2,000 years.

The roof of the chaitya hall

Onslaught of the elements they have survived. What about the onslaught of the humans?

Not just the humans who have steadily and thoroughly defaced and destroyed the magnificent architecture in the caves through the centuries. Religious motivation? Part of the plundering of the vanquished? Or was it just timepass…?

No, not just them from the past.

Which is the not so pleasant part. The litter. And the noise. And the plastic. And the catcalls. And the beer bottles. And the utterly unimaginative bunty-heart-arrow-babli graffiti. And the stench of urine inside the caves.

And did I mention the litter?

Why this utter lack of pride in what is ours – our heritage, our past? Is it ignorance? Or just plain indifference?

And all this from people who took off their footwear somewhere towards the top of the hill – before they entered the ekvira temple just near the caves. And bent low before every stone that had a flower and a red and yellow mark on it along the way…

These caves have survived – are surviving these ‘elements’ too – for how much longer, I wonder…

***
There is a wonderful group on flickr called Ruins from India. If you liked these pictures, have a look at more pictures and the interesting discussions there.

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