In the previous post we finished somewhere in the middle of the Western Ghats, lost, yet the journey up until that point had been fascinating. As we left the flat, torrid atmosphere of Kerala the roads were gradually cloaked by mountains. To the east were the dominant Ghats and the midday sun cast a haze around the peaks.
We took in many small townships and occasionally drove via large districts that were bursting at the seems with people. We hadn’t realised that, being in Tamil Nadu at this time of year, the local people were preparing for the fantastically named ‘Pongal’, a celebration not too dissimilar to Harvest back at home.
Thai Pongal, which means ‘boiling over’, ranks as the biggest celebration in Tamil Nadu and it was all around us for our entire trip. It celebrates the Sun God Surya to thank him for an abundant yield. The key harvest at Pongal is the sugarcane, which signifies prosperity. It is harvested in huge quantities and the good stuff is sold to the people who decorate their front doors with two or three branches tied in an arch (pictured above-right). It is also consumed as a sweet.
Inferior crops were used as cattle feed to the many oxen who were also decorated in head-scarves or bright paint. State newspapers ran daily articles on the increasing market price of sugarcane as Pongal approached, such was its significance at this time of year. Every house was adorned with sugarcane and it was a funny sight seeing moped drivers and cyclists carrying home their few branches of this precious commodity.
We drove through many settlements of varying sizes but the first significant place was Palani. Just outside this town was a small village of weavers, threading palm leaves to make roofing and fences.
After stopping off to photograph these workers we continued eastwards. Palani itself was a town with a huge temple built atop a single mound in the centre (see right), looking something like a James Bond villain’s headquarters. Called Arulmigu Dhandayuthapani, it was one of south India’s most significant temples.
After passing through Ayakudi, a few miles further on from Palani, the mountains were now to the south as we finally turned eastwards. We made the slow decline through the plains towards Virupatchi, and then spotted something rather strange. On the south side of the road were many, many hundreds of Indians walking the opposite way back towards Palani.
Every single one of them was barefoot and dressed either in green or orange. Our driver explained that these were pilgrims on their way towards the Arulmigu Dhandayuthapani temple, celebrating the Thaipusam festival. The Hindus were only allowed to enter the temple if they were wearing green or orange.
The closer these pilgrims got to Palani, the more worn out and tired they appeared.
Some hobbled, some were carried by their partners, many rested. Occasionally we’d spot a brightly decorated two-wheeled cart, which hauled refreshments and possessions, but most chose to carry their clothes and food in a scarf tied round their forehead which was slung over the back. Older pilgrims would frequently rest and it wasn’t uncommon to see a sage-like bearded man sitting in the lotus position upon a rock, observing the younger pilgrims marching past.
Also there were a number of pilgrims returning from Palani, walking back towards Madurai. We stopped and photographed some of the excitable young men who had had their heads shaved and painted.
Night approached and we still hadn’t reached Madurai. Conversation inside the car had worn thin and there was nothing outside to distract us save the pilgrims still walking on the opposite side of the road. Our woes seemed insignificant as they hopped and stumbled over a mile of incomplete highway of sharp gravel. Vehicles thundered past, kicking up thick puffs of dust and fume but the pilgrims determinedly marched on unperturbed .
Having lost faith in our driver’s skills I had taken to monitoring his progress on my GPS. Perhaps this was a little unfair as it unnerved him and upon our entry into the outskirts of Madurai he proceeded to take yet another wrong turn, which had us heading back out of town. I intervened and suggested he turn around. Unsure, he stopped the car to jump out and ask a farmer for directions, but of course there were no farmers here, so he had to make do with a street vendor instead. After much nodding, pointing and stroking of chins he sheepishly returned, climbed into the driver’s seat and assumed the direction I had recommended.
Thirteen hours and one angry phone call to our agent later we arrived at our hotel at 9pm, our tummies reminding us that dinner was long over-due.
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