The road from Munnar to Madurai probably registers about the same on the oh-em-eff-gee-it’s-stunning rating as it does on the shit-your-pants rating, so that makes the narrows roads with the sheers drop to the left slightly easier to deal with then. The road was blocked by a fuck off great big rock the other day and as we wound our way down and around the hills I realised exactly what this meant. We’re not talking a bit of rubble here, maybe a few stones fell into the road and a dude with a wheelbarrow had to go and pick them up. This area is prone to landslides and you can see the evidence around every corner, and because the road snakes around, if a rock falls it’ll probably take out more than one stretch of road at a time. We travelled past men and women shifting rubble and repairing roads, and at one point there were two blokes on top of a boulder trying to jack hammer it to pieces so they could dispose of it more easily.
I watched the driver as he negotiated the roads with one hand on the wheel, the other hand clamping his mobile phone to his ear. I started to wish I’d sat at the back where I could live in blissful ignorance and pretend that the road had his full concentration 100% of the time but I’m not gonna lie, despite the occasional terror it was one of the most enjoyable bus rides I’ve had so far. For my eyeballs anyway. I still don’t think my nerves have forgiven me and it’ll likely take a few days for my butt to fully unclench.
Aaaaanyway. Madurai. Where the mosquitoes are smaller but by no means less stabby. Tamil Nadu apparently does Hindu temples pretty well, it’s kind of its thing. I hadn’t intended to visit Tamil Nadu at all until I realised I’d allocated way too much time to Kerala so I decided to throw in Kanyakumari and a couple of hill stations in, then I heard about Madurai and its massive, full colour temple adorned with deities which is why I ended up here, standing at the foot of the West Tower looking up and muttering, “Hoo-leee-fuuuuck!” under my breath. Guys, it’s ridiculously amazing. You have to hand it to the Hindus, they don’t fuck about when it comes to their temples. I mean, anything can be a temple for these guys. I’ve seen a crack in a rock where someone has put a statue of a deity so it’s become a holy place. Caves or trees or simply a carving which has been painted red with the powder used for tikkas, all of these places can be considered holy and Hindus worship them. You often see shrines in peoples homes or outside, lining the road.
But this bad boy, the Meenakshi Amman Temple, this is a whole complex of devotion. You have to leave your chappals, your sandals, at the entrance and there’s a huge list of prohibited items including cameras so you’ll have to ditch that. There are lockers where you have to leave your stuff though. It’s not that they don’t want you taking photos, they just don’t want you taking them with an actual camera. You’re welcome to bring a mobile phone in and for ₹50 you can snap away. Unfortunately I didn’t buy my LG whatever it is for its photo taking capabilities so I apologise for the quality of the photographs taken inside the temple, and I’ve no idea how to turn off the freakishly conspicuous shutter noise so I might as well have strutted around the complex shouting, “Hey! Guys! I’m so totally taking loads of photos right now!” There’s also an area called the Thousand Pillar Hall which they’re turned into kind of an art museum thing. I counted 832 pillars. Oh those Indians, so prone to exaggeration, whether it’s a hall with not quite a thousand pillars or a tuk tuk driver telling you your destination is “very far, madam, ten kilometres” when it’s only around the corner. There are some pretty cool carvings in the pillars though. A few of them kind of look like Chinese style dragons and there are the usual gods and goddesses, mostly bare chested. I resisted the urge to maul anything. I don’t think that attempting to jiggle the stone boobies of a revered deity would be considered appropriate.
Inside the art museum there are statues of various deities in glass cases, and people have slotted money and photos of themselves inside them. Probably to ask for a blessing? Noooo idea. But I get it, I totes get this shit. In fact, I get a lot of religious rituals, they’re a little bit OCD aren’t they. I mean, I’m compelled to salute a lone magpie when I see one, wish it a good morning and inquire as to its well being. I look like much less of a crazy lady when I’m in a country which doesn’t have magpies. This is basically to remove the threat of “sorrow” that for some reason I believe an avian with a penchant for shiny things can bring down upon my head should I not show it the respect it deserves. Ok, I don’t believe it, not really, it’s completely irrational, but that doesn’t mean I can stop doing it, because what if it’s true?! But I get how some people do believe in stuff, and by “stuff” I mean gods, and why they do the things they do to get the gods to like them and do shit for them. So by slipping your god ten rupees and your passport photo so your god makes sure to send the good luck to the right person, boom, you’re sorted. Weirdly though, I can understand the belief in multiple deities or the power of nature, and rituals to appease these gods or this force, but I cannot for the life of me get my head around the one Christian God, or the Muslims’ Allah. Can’t do it. Makes no sense. But 30 odd millions deities? Yeah, that could so happen.
I padded around the complex for a while, snapping incredibly conspicuous photos and watching devotees light candles or wave their hands over flames then over their heads in one motion, as if they were washing themselves with the smoke. I actually love Hindu rituals. They make sense to me. There are four massive towers, one at each of the entrances, all covered in carvings of gods, goddesses, their vehicles, demons etc and there are 1511 statues on the south tower alone. Then there are two smaller towers inside which house the Shiva shrine and the Meenakshi shrine. Sadly, Parvati the temple elephant wasn’t around to clobber me round the head in exchange for a coin under the guise of “blessing” me on account of a month long Tamil Nadu temple elephant holiday. This pleases me, I’m glad the elephants get a holiday. I’m currently typing this imagining hundreds of pachyderms chilling on beaches in straw hats and sunnies, sipping brightly coloured cocktails. Though a quick Google search reveals that it’s more of a forest where they get to hang out with other elephants and play in a river and get a work out and eat good food, all funded by the Tamil Nadu government. Yeah. They’d probably enjoy that more than surfing lessons.
Once you’ve gotten your temple fix there’s also a museum you can head to a little bit out of town, the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Ok, so, there’s absolutely no way to inject humour into this so I’m not even gonna try. Even I felt like a bit of a cunt for merely being born in the country that committed the atrocities inflicted on India and I don’t even have any national pride. If you’re British and do have national pride then either look away now or practice hanging your head in shame. No, lower than that. Lowerrrrr… Also, feel free to skip this part. I want to put it in because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want, but it’s basically gonna be a fuck tonne of history, and not even the fun kind with torture and heads on spikes and… erm… not that that’s fun… yeah… crashing on… But if you do fancy trawling through it, grab yourself a cuppa and a stack of chocolate Hob Nobs and get comfortable…
It began in the 1600’s, when the “Whiteman” arrived to buy all of the awesomeness Indian had to offer, such as spices and textiles and precious stones. Because if there’s one thing India does well it’s awesomeness. The East India Trading Company was formed and it set about winning over the Mughal emperor, Akbar, and building forts and troops of Indian sepoys before it became powerful enough to start fucking with shit. And fuck with shit it did. In 1749, two blokes went at it to be the ruler of the Carnatic (think this means south India), one fella supported by the French and the other, Muhammad Ali, supported by the English. Muhammad Ali won and the EITC controlled him. This is where British conquest essentially began, and the Indian people became slaves.
If The Company couldn’t win fair land and square, they resorted to bribery like the underhanded little fucktards they were. The Nawab of Bengal was betrayed by his general under orders from the British. Other battles were fought throughout the south. Mysore kicked up a proper fuss under Haider Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, and three of the Mysore Wars were fought between 1767 and 1772. During the third one Tipu Sultan lost horribly and was forced to surrender half his land and two of his sons. He strengthened his army and began to make a pact with France but the British caught wind of this and kicked off the fourth Mysore War where Tipu Sultan was killed and the EITC took his territories for themselves. They stormed through the country, annexing entire states and seizing land from Nepal and then-Burma. They fought the Sikh’s for Punjab and won. The Rajputs of present day Rajasthan were under their control, and by the mid-1800’s they had it all. India was theirs. And they used humiliation and bullying to keep it that way.
For a century they oppressed the Indian people, imposing taxes and forcing farmers to produce goods for free. They used torture and executions to control people and Indians could be jailed without trial. The goods that they had come here to purchase in the first place were bought not with money from Britian, but with money taken from the people of India in the form of taxes. Then in 1857, starting in Bengal, the Great Revolt began. The British retaliated by marching on Delhi and defeating the leader of the rebellion who surrendered, as did the princes of Delhi. Despite the surrender they were executed and the British proceeded to massacre 27000 civilians. The revolt spread, but the British continued their slaughter until they were victorious, then in 1858 Queen Victoria took over the administration of India with a proclamation, because the queen could just kinda do shit like that in those days, and thus ended the horrific reign of the East India Trading Company, who were basically a bunch of unscrupulous cunts anyway.
Not that shit got any better. Ok, so it got a bit better for the educated types. They called it the Indian Renaissance. Intellectuals and thinkers wanted to learn from the west. To quote the information board, “Lord Macaulay made English the official language of India, thereby opening up a new era of intellectual and scientific contact between India’s ancient culture and the new dynamic movements in the culture of the West.” I mean, railways were built, proper roads happened, terrible superstitious and practices were questioned and outlawed, notably sati, the practice of incinerating a window alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. But if you weren’t lucky enough to be a bit posh, things were still pretty bad. An Englishman could kill an Indian without any repercussions. The boards say an Indian had to salaam to any white man he saw, but I’m not entirely sure what that means, it doesn’t sounds like fun though. But the middle classes eventually spoke up and in 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed which asked for better rights for Indians and a greater share in the administration.
It was in the early 1900’s when shit kicked off again, but it really kicked off. The British attempted to partition Bengal and everyone got arsey about it. Hindus and Muslims rose together and British goods were boycotted and burnt. The British responded to this with arrests and public floggings but eventually had to withdraw the partition, but the terrorism continued, with bombs and firearms, trying to drive the British from their country. The Brits suggested reforms but the National Congress saw it for the divide and rule game it was, whereas the newly formed Muslim League were all like, yeah, we’ll support this. When the WWI broke out in 1914 it had a shocking impact on the poor of India, and two years later the National Congress and the Muslim League came together. In 1915, that’s when Gandhi happened. He spoke to the people, empowered them, they became fearless and he lead them without violence. He rose up for the farmers who had been forced to sell their goods at prices fixed by the British or face torture and won the fight.
In 1919 the massacre at Amristar happened after Gandhi called for an India-wide hartal, or strike. Civil disobedience, basically. About 20000 people, men, women and children, gathered peacefully in protest against the arrest of a couple of leaders and the British shot the shit out of them. Like, utterly just shot them to death as they fled in terror. Fucking awful. This served to inflame the Indians and men with British titles and honours renounced them. Students boycotted schools, British goods were burnt and violence happened. Now, Gandhi was using something called satyagraha, a term which he coined, which meant you had to convert, not coerce the wrong-doer. Non violence. And whenever violence happened in the name of obtaining Independence, Gandhi would fast. He spent a lot of time not eating.
It wasn’t just independence he worked for, he was instrumental in lifting up the “untouchables,” the lowest caste who weren’t even allowed to walk on temple roads. Satyagrahis campaigned for the right of the Harijans to use the roads around the temples and won.
Gandhi also gave the people the charka, the spinning wheel he’s often depicted or photographed with. He thought that with it, people who had no work for a part of the year would learn to be self sufficient and to help themselves out of poverty by making their own clothing. It’s iconic now and was even used in earlier versions of the Indian National Flag until it was finalised with the Ashoka Chakra in the centre of the three colours; Saffron representing courage and sacrifice, white meaning truth and peace, and green standing for faith and strength.
In 1930, he broke the salt law, a quite frankly fucking ridiculous law which said only the British government could make salt. He marched across India, gathering followers as he went and by the time he got to Dandi, tens of thousands of people were there to watch him break the salt law by simply picking up salt. Clearly, he was promptly arrested. All over the country, people peacefully broke the salt law. The British retaliated with bullets, natch. Apparently, 103 were killed, 423 were injured and thousands were arrested.
Eventually, the British tried once again to to divide and conquer. They called for a Round Table Conference and gave separate electorates to the Harijans. Gandhi fasted, he wanted Hindus to be one and for untouchability to be wiped out. Temple doors were flung open to welcome the previously shunned Harijans and the British attempt to split them failed.
In 1939, shit kicked off with Hitler and Britain tried to drag India into it, but India was like, get fucked! We’ll help you as a free nation. You reckon you’re fighting for freedom? Well free us first! Britain sent a chap called Cripps in to negotiate with Indian leaders, but the condition was that India would have her freedom only after the war. The answer was, of course, a resounding no from all parties.
In 1942, Gandhi started the Quit India movement which eventually lead to the British realising they’d lost their hold. Officers were refusing to perform their duty. Police refused to shoot freedom fighters. It was all over and they knew it. In 1946 they started talking about an interim government, but the Muslim League wanted partition, they wanted Pakistan, and threatened civil war if they didn’t get it. Gandhi was upset at this idea, having lead the drive for independence for thirty years, but when India was made free in 1947, India was divided and East and West Pakistan were formed. East Pakistan is known as Bangladesh these days and is independent from West Pakistan, which today is known simply as Pakistan.
In 1948, Gandhi was shot dead. The dhoti he was wearing that day is on display in this museum on account of the fact he was visiting Madurai when he decided to start wearing a dhoti as a symbol of national pride. It’s still got blood on it. It’s, like, equal parts awesome and creepy. But yeah. That’s pretty much it in a slightly large nutshell. I kinda cringe a bit when Indians ask me where I’m from and I have to say “The UK” and that was before I learned the full extent of the atrocities committed by the country I happened to have been born in. What I’m more ashamed of is, why the actual fuck don’t we learn this shit in school? Why did I have crop rotation in the 17th century drilled into my cranium when we should have been learning this? Or what happened in Australia, or New Zealand, or the USA and Canada, or Ireland? I didn’t even know Britian had fucked Ireland over until an Irish friend told me a few years ago. Hadn’t learnt it. Never been told before. It’s not acceptable that as a nation we bury our heads in the sand and get all whiny about immigration and shit when our history is steeped in invading countries, stealing land, oppressing the people and raping their natural resources.
Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Stayed at: Hotel International