An Indian odyssey

Jonathan Gregson kick-starts his trusty Enfield Bullet, and heads south from Madras to savour the experiences of a journey through the state of Tamil Nadu
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I felt like Attila the Hun as I rode the Royal Enfield Bullet into the temple courtyard. The low thump coming from the big single-cylinder engine was amplified and echoed off the stonework of the gopuram - a wedge- shaped tower crowded with figures of divinities and mythical beasts which, as usual in south India, guards the temple entrance. Crowds of Hindu worshippers stood aside to let the motorcycles through. It made me think of neo classical paintings of the Great Barbarian at the gate, trampling the soon-to-be martyred under hoof as he spurred his war-horse up the steps of some late Roman basilica.

I hadn't sought out this weirdly amplified, atavistic sensation on purpose. In fact I'd tried to park the Bullet outside the main temple complex, alongside all the Hindustan Ambassadors and Marutis. For this I'd been told off severely. "You must be proceeding to the two-wheeler parking place only," I'd been informed by agitated temple officials, pointing to the arch beneath the gopuram and the Holy of Holies that I knew lay within. I'd done my best to avoid disturbing religious sensitivities, to be a good, law-abiding citizen. Now I was only following orders.

I shouldn't have worried. Temples and motorbikes might seem odd bedfellows to most westerners; but not so in India, where even the larger bikes like the Bullet are considered simply as "two-wheelers" - a category which includes bicycles and scooters. All are treated as a practical mode of transport; so they all get to park inside the temple precincts.

This was Day Three of my motorcycle tour of south India, and already I was getting used to switching between the on-the-road experience of adrenalin bursts and hot metal, and the deep tranquillity which descends when you get off the bike to stroll through a wayside village or temple.

Just 72 hours before I'd stepped off the plane at Madras airport, clutching helmet and boots, straight into the warm soup of a tropical night. The helmet was there because I already knew what it's like to ride a motorcyle in the subcontinent. The previous year I'd travelled the entire length of the Grand Trunk Road, from Calcutta to the Khyber, on an Enfield Bullet. Compared to that odyssey, this trip should be like an afternoon's stroll. None the less, during the taxi ride into town I couldn't help imagining how I would deal with anarchic local road habits if I was on a bike. Auto- rickshaws swung out regardless, stray cows wandered across the road. This was going to be very different from cruising up the A40.

In Madras I was introduced to the 350cc machine that would carry not just me, but my wife Sarah who was riding pillion. The Royal Enfield Bullet is a classic, 1950s-style British bike which is still manufactured in India. It looks and sounds terrific, and is tough enough to stand up to the battering meted out by subcontinental roads, but by modern standards it's a pretty basic machine. There are no mod-cons like an electric starter. With the Bullet it is kick-start only, and the gear change is on the right hand side - the opposite to practically all motorcycles built in the past 20 years.

For this reason, organised tours begin with a familiarisation course held at Fisherman's Cove, a beach resort south of Madras, so newcomers don't start off having to negotiate the snarling downtown traffic. Instead, they can try out the Bullet along empty, palm-fringed side roads, and meet the Enfield support team - a "Road Captain" whose job is to lead the way, set the pace, and try to dissuade any unredeemed speed addicts from making fools of themselves on Indian roads, and a factory mechanic in a back-up Jeep carrying spares.

The real trip began early next morning, just as the fat, red sun eased its way over an oily flat ocean. When biking in the subcontinent you soon learn the value of every hour of daylight. The first stretch was a breeze, straight down the new coast road to Mahabalipuram, and I was tempted to open the throttle full and go for it. But I knew better than this, at least in India. For just as you think everything is going right, the palm trees flashing past and the road ahead clear, a herd of goats or water buffalo will appear out of nowhere - and those buffalo have viciously backswept horns. In India you need to develop a different approach to riding, a different sense of danger.

You also need a different sense of history. Mahabalipuram's rock-cut temples and sensuously sculpted facades go back to the seventh century AD - a reminder that this seaside village was a major trading port, linking the Spice Islands and the Near East, while Attila was doing his stuff and Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages. A first lesson in humility, Indian-style. And the South Indian breakfast of dosas - a delicious rice- flour pancake served with fresh coconut chutney - might persuade even hardened bikers that there are better things than bacon and eggs, especially in a hot climate.

It was on the next stretch that we had our first taste of just how bad subcontinental back roads can be. A few weeks earlier one of the tropical cyclones which usually hit Bangladesh had turned south instead, causing serious flooding in Tamil Nadu. The old coast road was heavily pitted and washed away in places, so we were either riding king-sized potholes or negotiating loose sand where repairs were in progress - a combination designed to knock the machismo out of any speed merchant. And Sarah, riding pillion, had the kind of drubbing that even health farms reserve for masochists. "I know why they call this bike the Bullet," she said, easing herself off the saddle, "because that's what you shit when you've been on one all day."

Slow going it might have been, but the road passed through thatched fishing villages and curled around tanks crowded with water hyacinths where buffaloes cooled off from the midday heat. If you concentrated on the scenery rather than the speedometer it was idyllic; and being on a bike your body enters into the landscape, the tropical sun burns your face, and the smell of woodsmoke or fish drying in the wind hits you with an immediacy that other modes of transport cannot match.

Even sticking to the road you participate in rural life. All along the way, villagers were laying out newly harvested rice and straw to dry on the tarmac. The heavy lorries and buses drive straight through, helping to separate grain from chaff, but on a two-wheeler you have to negotiate these straw barricades with caution. I discovered laying out the crops is standard practice during Pongal, the Tamil version of harvest festival and the most important holiday in the calendar. Even townspeople were drawing intricate patterns on the tarmac outside their houses - sometimes finishing off the design with multi-coloured rice - and in the evening there was dancing.

Our destination that first day was the old French colonial enclave of Pondicherry. With its neat esplanade, street names like rue Dupuy and Bazaar Saint Laurent, and local policemen sporting scarlet versions of a gendarme's headgear, Pondy, as it is known, retains a distinctly Gallic ambience. Nowadays it's best known for its big ashram - the futuristic Auroville or "City of Dawn", where westerners seeking peace, or truth, or whatever go to practise their yoga techniques. Sarah and I wondered whether as bikers we would be welcome among the ashramites, and decided probably not. Whether that was our prejudice or theirs, I'll never know; though we met plenty of ashramites in a French-style restaurant serving steak au poivre, choucroute alsacienne and other such non-veggie fare.

From here on we were heading into tip-top temple country - the fertile Cauvery river-plain which for thousands of years has been a stronghold of the old Dravidian culture. Successive dynasties, the Pandiyas and Cholas, expanded from out of these Tamil heartlands; and their kings were tireless temple builders. First stop was Chidambaram, with its huge temple complex dedicated to Natraja, the dancing Siva, and other Hindu deities. Boots and helmets were left with the gatekeeper before confronting the legions of single-thread Brahmins, reputedly descendants of Kashmir pandits, nearly all of whom asked for donations. We witnessed an elaborate puja ceremony before riding on, down winding roads through lush countryside, to Kumbakonam with its 18 temples and massive pyramidal towers. So I was feeling just a little "templed-out" by the time we reached Thanjavur that evening.

But the glowing stones of the Brihadisvara temple - a World Heritage monument - beckoned in the evening light, so rather than going straight to our hotel I turned off and tried to park. It was then that the bike was ushered into the temple precincts and I finally realised that, in south India at least, temples and motorbikes aren't incompatible; that in fact they make perfectly acceptable stablemates.

My memories of the rest of south India are like a series of intense, constantly shifting images viewed through a kaleidoscope. Climbing the Rock Fort at Tiruchchirapalli to look out on massive gopurams rising like Mayan pyramids above the tree line. Riding the bike - now totally unconcerned - into the heart of the temple complex at Srirangam. The thousands of polychrome gods and goddesses at Madurai, and the crush of a thousand pilgrims. The smell of shrimp drying on the fishermen's beach at Kovalam, and that of pink flesh roasting on the adjacent tourist beach, the two separated only by a lighthouse on a headland.

That, and the shifting rhythm of the road. I'd advise half throttle only going up through densely populated Kerala, past inland waterways and lagoons and coconut plantations - so many slender trunks that they seemed to stretch forever. A squeeze of the brakes for Cochin city with its crowded streets and merchant houses, the oldest church in Asia where Vasco da Gama was buried and the even older Jewish Synagogue. Then down a gear or two for the climb up into the Westem Ghats and the Nilgiris, the road twisting and turning through mountain forests with working elephants hauling lumber, before breaking clear into rolling uplands and tea gardens around Ooty, where I watched a film crew shooting a Bombay starlet down by the lake.

A kaleidoscope of dazzling colours and split-second visions of tranquillity as you go rushing past, the single cylinder thumping lazily away - that's what motorcycling through south India is all about. And at the end there is a certain sense of achievement, that you made the distance without ramming a rickshaw or being mown down by some maniacal trucker in an Ashok Leyland. At times it can be frighteningly intense. But that moment when, at speed, you pirouette around a buffalo's upturned horns

Jonathan Gregson's book "Bullet up the Grand Trunk Road, a motorcycle journey through India and Pakistan 50 years after independence and partition", is being published by Sinclair-Stevenson in June.

FACT FILE

ROYAL ENFIELD'S motorcycle tours of south India can be arranged with tailor-made dates and itineraries for groups of 10 or more riders. Costs include accommodation, meals, vehicle maintenance, taxes and fuel, and run from $1,060 (pounds 680) per person for two people, one riding pillion and sharing rooms, to $1,330 for a lone rider with single room.

Flights to Madras are not included, and it's advisable to take your own helmet (though wearing one is not legally required in India). Also arrange your own insurance, as most travel policies don't cover motorcycling. For details of tours, contact Royal Enfield Motors, Madras. Tel. 00 91 44 54 3300, Fax 3253, or e-mail via the internet: enfield@giasmd0l.vsnl.net.in

Other tours include two weeks around Rajasthan, departs 17 February, 24 November or 15 December, from $1,295 (pounds 830); and the 17-day "Roof of the World" tour over the Himalayas and into Ladakh (no pillions), departs 14 July and 18 August, costing $1,615. For these, flights should be booked to Delhi.

Warning: motorcycles are hired out to tourists by local travel agents or bike shops in resorts like Goa, Kovalam and Pondicherry. Some don't have valid road tax, licences or insurance. I've heard "horror stories" from friends who hired a motorcycle and were immediately arrested by police in Goa who had been tipped off. Imprisonment was threatened unless bribes were paid. So double-check all documentation is in order.

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