Pilgrims with a mortgage

The last time that Martin Symington and his wife travelled in India, they did it on a shoestring. Nearly 20 years later, they decided to do Tamil Nadu in an Ambassador

Anjuya, where the heck are we going now?" I asked, even though our driver's English was about on a par with my Tamil.

Anjuya's predictable answer was to turn round, smile reassuringly, and wiggle a hand in the air. This, we now understood, meant "To see something unexpected".

Our bulbous white Ambassador car had just braked sharply and turned off the neglected country road we were following from scruffy village to forgotten town, crossing rural Tamil Nadu in south India. We bumped along a red dirt-track, skirted a shimmering lake and stopped at the edge of a dark green forest. Anjuya pointed to an opening, guarded by two enormous clay horses' heads.

Within were thousands more horses. A little smaller than life-sized and looking inwards, they lined a cool, shaded avenue slicing through the tamarind and Indian oak trees. Each animal was different: some looked haughty and camel-like; others had fiery expressions and wild manes, or mouths open in mocking laughter. Many had been broken, their heads, legs and torsos strewn on the forest floor as in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

Wide-eyed, we walked down the avenue for perhaps half a kilometre. It was like being dignitaries, reviewing a guard of honour in Narnia. Monkeys swung silently in the trees, which formed a canopy over us. At the end, in a clearing, were burnt-out incense sticks and offerings of food to a pantheon of gods and demons, their statues blackened with oil and garlanded with dead flowers. Bewildered and, despite the heat, shivering in the eerie atmosphere, we began the long march back to Anjuya and the car.

It was only next day, in Madurai, quizzing an English-speaking guide whose grandmother hailed from this area, that we began to make any sense of what we had seen. This was the Sacred Grove of Elangudi Patty - sacred, that is, to the villagers of nearby Namana Shamudhram who for centuries have worshipped a god called Ayyanar, who manifests himself in equine form and exorcises devils.

Weird experiences like this, we concluded, are the reward for escaping the tyranny of the guidebook to explore beyond the bounds they set.

My wife Hennie and I, incorrigible travellers in the early 1980s, spent months travelling India on a shoestring, wearing backpacks and baggy cotton trousers. New careers, responsibilities and three children later, a rare opportunity occurred recently for us to return, albeit for little more than a week.

How to rediscover the magic of India? Certainly not, we both agreed, on the luxury lake-palace and British Raj-nostalgia circuit, which some tour operators mistake for quintessential India. Rather, we would mosey through Tamil Nadu in the less-visited south, starting with a direct flight from Heathrow to Chennai (as Madras was renamed last year).

We spilled straight into a city clogged with decrepit buses, auto-rickshaws whining like bumble-bees, beggars, and herds of white Ambassador cars, which curiously resemble the nonchalant humped cows whose leisurely right it is to disrupt the already chaotic traffic. We bathed in rivers of sari- and dhoti-clad people and inhaled the scents of sandalwood, spices and sewage. Stair-rods of pollution streaked a skyline of temples and pylons. Boys played scratch cricket on patches of scrub. We ate masala dosas (pancakes stuffed with spicy potato) on the platform of Madras Egmore station. A true munch down memory lane.

Tiruchirappalli (aka Trichy - most places in Tamil Nadu have two names these days) was an inspired choice as our first stop. But the first-class tickets were a mistake. We soon abandoned our chilly, over-air-conditioned and lifeless first-class carriage for the windowless third class beloved of old. For much of the six-hour journey we sat on the steps of an open door, watching India flick by and learning priceless facts from Moraji, a civil-engineering student who befriended us.

"We are now crossing the second widest bridge in Tamil Nadu"; "This town has the fourth - no, fifth - highest radio transmitter in south India"; and "Trichy airport is the seventh oldest in all of India," Moraji announced as we screeched into Tiruchirappalli Junction station. We discovered that the town also boasts a "Stalin's barber" and a "Mother Teresa's Computers" shop, in a bizarre bazaar sprawling round the Rock Fort temple.

In thanks for a bunch of bananas, the resident temple elephant shampooed us with its mucus - a traditional blessing. Then we joined thousands of barefoot devotees, climbing a tunnel of 437 steps cut into the massive granite outcrop topped by a shrine to Shiva. "Eagles" (actually buzzards) wheeled round the summit.

We looked out over the many bathing ghats on the river Cauvery, and the vast Sri Rangathaswamy Temple Complex where 5,000 Brahmins live among the courtyards, the shrines to Vishnu, and the gopuras - towering pyramid gateways adorned with millions of red and blue gods and demons.

"Sriman Narayana, Saranam, Saranam, Prabasthey, Srimathey Narayanaya Namaha."

A Tannoy system unrelentingly chanted the holy mantra, adoring almighty Vishnu, from the top of the highest gopura. It was still playing in our heads later, at the "Wild West Bar" at Jenney's Residency, our gaudy, three-star-ish hotel where Indian businessmen and the town's yuppies come to drink. In the bar, life-sized mechanical gold-diggers and saloon-bar patrons swing pickaxes and draw their six-shooters.

In the company of cowboys and Indians, we discovered that Black Label beer still tastes, as it always did, of licked envelope.

The next stage of our journey was in the back of our Ambassador, heads reposing against starched antimacassars. The civilised way to travel India, and a new experience for us. Our fate was in the hands of Anjuya, as we struck out across the flat plains of the Cauvery Delta, south India's rice basket for more than 2,000 years.

The river splinters into myriad tributaries and glimmering irrigation canals, amid paddies as green as croquet lawns and speckled with white ibises. Electric-blue kingfishers flashed by. Further from the water sources were patches of post-harvest buff which would remain dry till the July monsoons. Wooden carts pulled by oxen with painted horns made painfully slow progress from paddy to village. By the roadside, women flayed grain from husk, sweeping up mountainous piles of each.

We were on our way to visit Gangakondacholapuran, a colossal temple built 1,000 years ago in the times of the Chola kings. Its gopuras are visible for miles around, just as the great Gothic cathedrals must have overwhelmed the landscape of medieval Europe.

A wizened old guide, his back bent almost to a right angle from years working in the paddies, showed us round the temple. "Stonehenge," he said simply, when we told him we lived in Wiltshire. He made no other reference to Britain, except to peer through cracked spectacles and enquire, as we climbed back into our car: "From which airport did you fly to India - Heathrow or Gatwick?"

Tanjore (Thanjavur), the ancient Chola capital where we based ourselves for a couple of days, is dominated by the 13-storey Brihadishwara temple. Its crown is an 18-ton granite dome hauled into place in AD1010, on a ramp of earth 7km long. Floodlit on a balmy night, it was humming with life as worshippers in their hundreds draped garlands of marigolds round the necks of statues, and lit sandalwood and incense sticks. India at its most romantic.

However, it was meandering through rural India, something never within our sights as backpackers, that produced the real surprises of the trip. How, without a car and canny driver, would we ever have stumbled on Elangudi Patty and its haunted horses? We had simply requested to be taken on a circuitous route through the backwaters of Tamil Nadu, on the drive from Tanjore to Madurai, our final destination.

In teeming Madurai we were well back on the tourist trail, fighting our way through bullock carts, rickshaws and thousands of pilgrims to the great temple of Meenakshi, one of the holiest sites in India.

At the temple, a Brahmin priest explained: "This place is a tirtha, a crossing place between the sacred and the profane. Whoever stands here, crosses from the human world into the world of the spirit."

Two flights and 24 hours later, back in the human world of Wiltshire, we remembered his words.

SOUTHERN INDIA

GETTING THERE

The author travelled as a guest of Western & Oriental (tel: 0171-313 6611) which tailor-makes itineraries to both mainstream tourist areas of India, and less-visited regions. A 10-day trip similar to this one costs around pounds 1,400, including return flights on British Airways from London to Chennai, accommodation in comfortable hotels and travel in trains and private cars. Prices are based on two people sharing.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British passport-holders need visas, which cost pounds 19 from the Indian High Commission (tel: 0171-836 8484).

Useful books: India Handbook by Robert and Roma Bradnock (Footprint, pounds 16.99); South India (Lonely Planet, pounds 14.99).

Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick