From the Travel Epistles of Damian Beeson Bullen
Two weeks in Thiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu
I’ve finally made it to Tamil Nadu. Seven years ago I picked up this book of sayings called THIRUKKURAL, written by the Tamil saint, Thirruvalavar. Since first flicking through the book in an opium induced haze in a dodgy Madurai hotel, I have always intended to to render a poetic English version. So, here I am, finally starting to do it all on a hotel balcony overlooking the main chaotic drag of Thiruvanamalai. Below me there are tarmac layers vying for road space with rickshaw on rickshaw as the gridlock inches closer & closer to wherever the fuck it’s going.
Yesterday morning I was still in Gokarna. I’d spent a whole week in ‘Paradise,’ but I reckon the brain begins to turn to jelly after too much bumming about on the beach. It was well wicked though, boating from beach to beach & eating some fine cuisine in the the wave-lapped restaurants. The forests above the coast were also lovely, & I saw my first ever Kokava’s… crazy white heron-type birds that follow their chosen cow/buffalo everywhere, nibbling on the insects that nibble on the cows. Here, both bird & beast come across as a perfectly happily married couple.
Leaving Gokarna involved catching a sleeper bus to Bangalore – an overnight journey of 12 hours that tossed me into the air every time we hit a bump – even the bottle of whiskey & two valiums couldn’t keep me asleep. This was cool, though, as it let me watch our entrance to Bangalore. Honestly, I’ve never seen so many trucks, lining the roads for about 3 miles on the western approaches to the city. I got dropped off into the heart of Bangalore at rush hour (about 8am), where many a western clad youth was hurrying off to their call centre work. Bangalore is the principle centre for telecommunications in India, nick-named the notorious ‘Silicon Valley’ – & odds on when you get an Indian callworker in Britain they’ll be based here.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I managed to find a bus out of there… there were several bus stations & about a million buses to choose from, with mine sweeping me over the state border & into Tamil Nadu. So far, TN seems to consist of a verdant flat plateau, interspersed with solitary bouldery peaks – remnants of ancyent volcanoes. One of these pointy rocks is the Annamalai hill, beneath which Thiruvannamalai nestles. It is a very holy place & its temple is huge. I’ve booked into a cool hotel (Hotel Ganesh) for a week or so – taking a single room for 125 rupees (1 pound fifty). Downstairs is a restaurant where I get my Thali (a mixture of dishes) served on a giant banana tree leaf. Makes sense really, perfectly bio-degradable. The hotel owner has also agreed to help me with my translations of Thirukural – it’s basically the Tamil Bible – & the reception on mi telly is wicked for the weekend’s footy. I think staying in a madcap town off the traveler’s trail is gonna be a nice way to get used to Tamil culture, seeing as I’m kinda stuck here now for the winter translating this obscure fuckin’ poem.
18 – 11 – 08
As Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, I would like to declare Thirruvannamalai the Edinburgh of the East. I swear down, Mount Arunachala is just like Arthur’s seat, with the town curled around its base – there’s probably a few other comparisons to be made, but to tell you the truth Scotland seems a long way away right now, bombarded as I am by all this bullshit. Did I say bullshit? I meant to say life-reaffirming, spiritually awakening, international cultural exchange.
My hotel is wicked – a quiet oasis among the electric buzz of the city. I’m paying 125 rupees (1.50) for a room with a toilet & tv. Alright, there’s a few ants crawling about at the front door – but I figure if I leave no food in my room then no ants will invade. The hotel also runs a catering & management college next door & gets the students to do work experience, which involves cleaning my room whenever I want, & bringing food to my room & other little errands – very Agatha Christie. I’m on the top floor of the place, which means I’m among the rooftops of the town, always a cool sight. It’s made a lot sweeter, however, by the great mountain that fills up the panorama less than half a mile away.
There’s a few mosquitoes about & their bites are itchy as fuck. After two days & nights of being bit, plus splattering them (& my blood inside them) all round my room’s walls, then thinking I’ve got the last one, settling down to sleep & hearing the hungry buzz of YET ANOTHER ONE hovering around my neck like a vampire, I bought myself a mosquito net. Funny thing is, their corpses have attracted the ants who have been streaming into the room like vultures & polishing them off one by one.
At the foot of the mountain is the Sri Ramana Ashram, full of brainwashed westerners who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the ass, never mind a fuckin Jock Stock. I tried to blag some free food there the other day, but they saw through my attempts at self-realization – & I’d even paid ten rupees for a bindi painted between the eyes. However, I do get to use their library, & that’s a fuckin’ godsend. I’m currently spending my mornings & afternoons there at the moment, under a fan & transcreating the Thirukural. I don’t speak Tamil, but I’ve got several English translations spread in a semi-circle about me, plus a dictionary & thesaurus. Additional help comes from my personal librarian, who is assisting me with the thornier moments thrown up by classical Tamil. It’s actually a very cool experience – Indiana Jones meets Lord Byron – & the Tamils are quite taken aback by a Burnley Boy poeticizing what is to all extents & purposeless their Bible!
I’ve been walking to my studies every morning & afternoon without fail, passing herds of immaculately uniformed schoolkids & guys wobbling about on bikes laden with steaming chambers of chi. Next comes these massive decorated festival carts with wheels as big as two men; well what I really mean are two western men – apart from some geezers down the ashram I’m the tallest man in town, which is kinda weird.
I then pass the great temple, whose four god-carved gates tower over the town; then the busy markets, before walking down a poor village type road, full of rubbish, chickens & bricks – it’s got that industrial-age, Burnley feel where everyone kind of lived in the street. Then comes a glorious ghat (reservoir) whose green water is quite surprising on the eye. Beside this is a middle class suburb, lots of one floor villas with rooftop terraces overlooking the ghat. These have name boards hung proudly on the outside, for example one was a health educator & another was the sub-inspector for the local police force. After this comes the ashram area, where the westerners flock & chill out, spending a lot more money on their generally inferior food. I mean, I’ve been eating wickedly & struggling to spend more than three pounds a day on food.
There’s quite a few orange-clad babas hanging about the ashram – after some enquiry I have discovered none of whom support Holland in the world cup. I have also discovered, on one of my sidestreet walks, that they are unscrupulous rogues. I saw a couple of them eagerly emptying their metal carry-tins of cash – loads of it – with a lot more vigor than their semi-pathetic attempts to get some rupees out of you. They were huddled together far from the eyes of the more gullible westerner, like a couple of cockney gangsters, dishing out loads of rupees & swigging back a very large bottle of whiskey.
So what is life like in small town Tamil Nadu? It’s certainly not a redneck place, quite affluent really, I guess gaining an element of prosperity from the influx of pilgrims. The place is full of pedestrians & bikes – pedal & petrol – mingling with the Tamil animals; don’t-give-a-shit-Cows nuzzling through the roadside rubbish tips or planting themselves in the centre of the busiest roads; abandoned puppies & the same dog everywhere; grotesque rats & deformed ponies; giant horny oxen trotting through the streets hauling produce-laden carts; cats, bats & monkeys haunting the rooftops. I chucked a paul-daniels-faced monkey a banana the other day & chuckled to myself as his little hands unpeeled it – just like a human!
Eating out is a bit weird; you are attended on hand & foot, with refills for food & water arriving from a team of waiters. This state of affairs, coupled with my cleaner boys at the hotel, is perfectly satisfying my colonial pretensions – all I need now is a tiger hunting blunderbus & a bridge club. The maddest thing I’ve seen was a sleight of hand con guy, who had set up a little shrine & had two snakes & a rodent & just kept chatting non-stop & banging this little drum as he did his ‘magic’. Actually I was quite enthralled, as were the Indians, but the point to it all was beyond me.
All the shops are the same size, & everyone is a specialist (Tesco’s would have a fit). There’s shops which contain only penny sweet jars, coconut warehouses, spice merchants with multicoloured sacks, pharmacists, clinics, speaker shops, bookshops, 20 rupee an hour internet places, garland makers with bright fluffy flowers, tailors sat sewing to the world, the most delicious looking cakes you’ve ever seen (with complementary chewy fly), busy barbers, banks, mobile phone shops, modern looking shoe shops & guys sat in the street surrounded by old flip-flops cleaning & repairing peoples footwear (one of these guys fixed my hat)… & even an interior decorators. There’s also the chicken marts, which are a real sad thing to see. Proud cocks & white hens stuck together in cramped cages, watching agitatedly as one-by-one they get the chop right in front of their sad little eyes – I tell ya, my chucks back at Heather Lodge don’t know how lucky they are!
At one point I sampled the wears of a fried fish stall – very delicious but too many bones. More palatable have been the samosas; other fried street foods (3p) & the bananas (2p) which you buy in bunches of ten from gypsy-type women in the street. These in turn come from the banana wholesalers, where bunches of up to a hundred green bananas cling to a bamboo style stalk. The leaves have been stripped off by now & even these are sold off in the street to guys from the restaurants – that’s in the street remember, & I’ve gotta eat off em. Other food you can buy on the street-carts include apples, oranges, grapes, banana fritters, peanuts, ready-to-eat corn-on-the-cobs & fresh coconuts, which they crack the top off for you so you can drink the milk with a straw, then crack in half so you can eat the creamy flesh inside.
Fashion sense is not that varied. All the women wear saris & the men have only four possible combinations of outfits – either a pair of trousers or this kilt thing to cover the legs, with either a short sleeved or long sleeved cotton shirt (in stripes or checks, so I guess that six combos). The flip-flop is the footwear of choice, though about a third of the folk go about barefoot. They hardly ever use the paths & invariably compete with road space with everything else… mainly because the paths run over stinking sewers & are full of holes. Most of the roads themselves have strange delusions of concrete, but these are basically under a pile of crud, which during the recent rains has turned to ghostbuster goo.
For me, the weather’s been great, actually, quite cloudy & rainy – the top of the mountain is often obscure by mist – tho’ warm enough to sleep naked. I’m not a big sunlover, so a bit of respite from the heat is wicked. In a few days, once the novelty of disciplined writing wears off, I’m gonna get green scooter-bike for 75 rupees (1 pound) to explore the countryside. I’m a bit nervous, actually, as the roads are certifiably insane, & all those raring buses blaring in my ear is making me, actually, fuckin deaf!
Tonight’s been a bit crazy in town – the leader of Tamil Nadu – Karunanidni of the DMK party – has just turned up & the centre has been bedecked with banana trees, light statues & a hell of a load of Belgium flags. Apparently it’s the flag of the DMK, but just like Belgium, the rally was pretty boring so I didn’t stay for long. The guy sounded just like the one at Wigton Cattle auction, but a bit slower.
So to conclude, I have been in India almost 3 weeks now – only 3 months to go – the poems going well & my poo has finally hardened, though is still maintaining its curious yellow colour. India at present is a pretty funky place to be. I mean, it’s come along way even in the few years I’ve been visiting, slowly turning into the global superpower that a democracy of a billion people must support. At the moment they have the smartest guy on the planet – Vishy Anand has just become world chess champion – the best cricket team – they’ve just walloped the Aussies – & they’re the only ones who’ve been willing to do anything about the Somalian pirates, sinking one of their mother ships only recently. What, with Usain Bolt & Lewis Hamilton being the fastest men on the planet, Barrack Obama being the hardest (thanks to several trillion pounds to spend & quiet a lot of nukes), & the Chinese being the best Olympic nation on the planet, it looks like the world is tilting on a 21st century axis & the darkies are taking over.
22 – 11 – 08
That spot of rain I was talking about last time turned out to be the annual monsoon – apparently they get it later in the years this far south – it’s been proper pelting it down! This rain then apparently drives all the snakes indoors – including cobras. Luckily I’m on the top floor.
The other day I decided to climb Arunchala, the extremely sacred mountain which overlooks Thiruvanamalai. Waking at six, I caught Glenda with a quick STD (they are the international phones), her slightly slurred voice telling me she was still up & drinking (surprise) at one in the morning Scots time. My ascent then began in light drizzle, which follow’d a series of arrows & religious graffiti painted on the scattered boulders, all pointing upwards. As I climbed, the view of the town & surrounding area began to increase. Thiruvannamalai is not as big as I thought, & shaped like a dolphin’s fin protruding from the southern flank of the sacred peak. Beyond it lies a flat, nameless plain – very green – with a range of hills about 10 miles away or so. Their proximity, & the fact that the crazy town streets quickly fade into verdant champaign re-inspired me to get a bike & go cruising.
After about an hour I reached the summit – a pleasant sensation made even more so by an encounter with the local guru. He is 30 – an orphan – & has been living in a shack just off the summit for ten years – 10 fuckin years meditating & shit. He’s the guy who’s painted all the graffiti – including one funny one indeed… his own fuckin’ website. Talk about 21st century asceticism. He even has a mobile phone – no reception on the top of the mountain however – but I’ve got his number if I ever need to meditate with him. He was a nice guy & gave me a glass of chi & taught me a little Tamil. If I make it back up I’ve promised to bring him some tea & brown sugar.
The descent was delightful, passing through a little corner of the world that the gods promised the Dragonflies. After musing on the possibility of anyone being eaten alive by dragonflies, & coming to the conclusion that they properly hadn’t, I paused for a while. About a hundred of them were buzzing around me, with some of the braver ones coming almost to my nose & hovering with their four delicate wings for a few moments, before darting off awhile. Further down the flanks of Arunachala I came across the two caves that Sri Ramana had lived in at the turn of the century. He’d been doing a similar thing to the guy at the top of the mountain, basically meditating for years. I guess that after a while enough people turned up & gave him 50 rupees (like me) for him to steadily improve his living quarters. First he built a house around his original cave – where devotees still sit in silent candlelight to this day – then he moved to another cave higher up the slopes & built a villa around it. His final port of call – for 27 years – was the ashram at the bottom of the hill.
The Sri Ramana Ashram is quite a funny place – full of meditating souls, Asian & Western, with everyone leaving shoes at the door of what is quite a large temple complex. I witnessed quite a spectacle while I was there, sat cross-legged on a marble floor before the shrine where Ramana’s body is buried. A few brahmin – men & boys – were sat down singing with deep intonation some Vedic hymn like the drone of a Miltonic canto. It took the form of a question & answer thing, the acoustics of the room echoing their voices even further, & while they sang a few devotees wailed ceremoniously round the shrine. To me it was rather like a Lenard Cohen single played at 33 rrp. I even joined in for a couple of circuits, the music sending vibrations through my chest – but just before the Stepford Wives & their spiritual tupperware party had persuaded to give my brand new sandals away & move into a cave, I quickly reclaimed my shoes & fled to the safety of the library across the road.
All this brought up the question of religion for me. The closest I’ve ever been to god was down the ‘Dads & Lads’ night on Fridays down Woodtop Church in Burnley, where after singing a few hymns we were given tea, biscuits & got to play pool. But to the Indian faith & devotion is totally ingrained into the psyche. It was the same for the English not two centuries ago, but modernistic materialism is the new religion now – coinciding with the end of the age of Pisces… Jesus was a fisherman, remember, & the age of Pisces began when he was born. Will India be affected by atheistic modernism. I believe ultimately it will, but the change will take centuries, not the mere decades it took the West to wake up & smell the bullshit. Besides, Christianity was based on fear of the afterlife – Heaven & Hell – while most eastern religions believe in some form of Moshka – the release from the never ending cycle of birth & death. By this reasoning, eventually there will be no one left in the east to believe, because they will all be in Moksha
The few westerners who come to India seeking ‘salvation’ are a funny bunch – but looking at the predominance of middle-aged ex-hippies wandering about the ashram it is my conclusion that most of them took too much acid in their youths. I mean, so did I like, but there’s no need to turn into a thrill-less mind-junkie, lost in your own thoughts & only ever getting laid when its tantric (ie no quickies).
26 – 11 – 08
Well it’s no use pretending anymore, you’ll all find out my real name soon enough. I am Yawansum Avadabadis, a senior member of the Deccan Mujahadeen who are now gloriously attacking the heart of Tony Blair-loving India. I am currently positioned on the 19th floor of the Trident hotel, Mumbai, writing this on some dead American’s laptop, his Yankee blood curling crimson pools around my feet. For many years now I have lived in the west, sleeping with your women, drinking your terrible-tasting Tennent’s lager & studying your infidel ways – preparing for the day when we at the Deccan Mujahadeen can strike like a cobra at your dollar-loving, Anglo-Saxon imperialism…
Well, not really, but it’s been pretty cool watching they blanket coverage of the still ongoing terrorist strike against Mumbai. I presume you guys know about it in the UK – mainly for the fact that the English cricket team has cancelled its tour of India – a convenient excuse really as they were 5-0 down in the series. The action started a couple of nights ago, with mentions of a gun battle on the streets of Bombay – the very same ones I was walking three weeks ago. Hour-by-hour the flashpoints escalated over a number of locations, with hotels being taken over, police cars being used by the terrorists to shoot up civilians, petrol stations being blown up, top cops being killed, footage of blood in the streets, all followed by the slow, methodical counter operations of the Indian government. The NSG (National Security Guards) had to make its way thro’ traffic in clapped-out trucks for god’s sake – a far cry from the SAS in 1980. As I left my hotel for a walk, the commandoes had just commenced their final mopping-up operations, searching for the last couple of young Kalashnikov-toting, grenade-tossing Fedayeen that still stalk the Taj hotel, Mumbai’s greatest landmark.
It is all very 9-11, marking the Obama age with a sanguinary relish, & I wonder if it’s going to affect my stay in India. No-one seems to give a shit about it down here in Tamil Nadu. The papers are more interested in the 50 people that have died from the week-long cyclone that’s been hanging over the state. “Call that rain,” I said to a series of astonished Indians, swaggering through a downpour the other day listening to a bit of disco on my mp3 player, with the arrogance of a Burnley boy who, like Eskimos & snow, knows 500 different names for rain.
Four days on & I wish it would bloody stop. The sight of Indians in umbrellas & dodgy macs, coupled with river-like, sewage-bearing streets doesn’t fit into my sun-kissed winter soiree with the Tamils. They seem happy, though, the ghats are overflowing & the state’s water supply should have enough now to see them through until next summer’s rains. The weather is also keeping me in Thiruvanamalai – the hotel is very dry & the storm-ravaged coast of my next destination doesn’t seem so appealing right now. Unfortunately Aranachala is perpetually swept in cloud, spoiling my view of the sacred mountai. This led to a brief conversation with my Landlord as to getting my money back – or at least get a reduction for the rain. I think he told me to fuck off in Tamil. Talking of which, I’ve learnt about 15 expressions so far – it’s a lovely language & quite accessible.
To finish, here’s a flurry of numbers
Days without smoking – 9
Days without alcohol – 11
Today’s sit ups – 42
Today’s press ups – 21
Kural completed – 410
Kural to do – 920
Days down in India – 23
Days to go – 83
I have finally left Thiruvanamalai. For a week I was caught between two cyclones – The Operation Cyclone that the NSG called their anti-terrorist actions in Mumbai, & Cyclone Nisha that has been ravaging Tamil Nadu. In the last couple of days the rains finally ceased & now I am in Mamallapuram, next to the choppy waters of Bay of Bengal. It was definitely time to leave the old temple town, especially as my room was progressively turning black with damp. One morning I woke up to find fungus everywhere – my hat, my bag, some clothes & even my chess pieces all had a furry look & feel.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best room in the world after all. On one occasion I was in my mosquito net chilling out, when I felt a wee tickle. It turned out to be an ant, which I casually flicked away. Then putting my feet under the covers I touched something weird, turning out to be a few hundred ants chomping on a bit of banana which had previously stuck to my foot & came off in the bed. I found this quite a disturbing experience, which resulted in me flailing around like a madman & vigorously shaking sheets & mattress onto the street below.
One of the most interesting sights in my last few days at Thiruvanamali was a circus-like spectacle of an eight-year-old girl balancing on a rope about my head high. While her dad sold popcorn; her mum knocked out some funky rhythms on a metal pan; & her older brother did the bass on a djembe, her legs wiggled wiggled left & right like a supersonic pendulum. Then, she did all that again, but this time balancing a pot on her head!
I have also been to the movies – situated in a fine building – to watch Death Race dubbed in Tamil. It was quite cool actually, for dialogue wasn’t really an essential pillar of the movie. There was also an old-fashioned interval, when the audience of 100 percent males dived for the samosas being sold by a couple of cheeky kids.
I have finally visited the famous temple that I’ve been walking past several times a day for two weeks. It begins with leaving one’s shoes at a little shack just outside for two rupees, then wading through several decrepit beggars & a police electronic bomb detector unit just to get inside. On the way in, a very cheeky monkey came & stole some food from a toddler’s hand, whose pathetic cries accompanied me inside the sacred space. Aranachaleswaram temple is a fine affair, consisting of 3 concentric rectangles leading to the inner temple at the heart of the complex. The inner courtyards are entered through similar gates to the main ones – n, s, e, w – gleaming white majestic edifices with the entire Hindu pantheon poised in many poses.
Deeper into the temple I saw my first elephant of the tour, which turned out to be the ultimate penny arcade machine. After being hypnotised by the gentle pacing, left & right, of his two massive front legs… I placed a rupee in his trunk. The elephant than patted me on the head with said trunk & gave the now mucus-dripping rupee to his trainer. Better still was watching him, ever so politely, use the loo. He took a few steps to one side, separated his back legs & pooed & peed AT THE SAME TIME – a feat we humans can only dream about. This got me looking at his penis – not in a gay way – the outer skin looked just like a big black brain & the ‘nob’ was as polished as an ebony jewel. It was the elephant’s eye which I found the most remarkable; possessing an otherworldly, almost alien aura, & with the loveliest eyelashes in the whole of nature.
On my last day in Thiruvanamali I saw both a lovely sunrise & a soul-searing sunset. In the morning the clouds had finally dispersed, revealing the landscape which I hadn’t seen for a week… all round me mountains peeked out of the milky distance like nervous children. The sunset was amazing. I had just settled down on the rooftop, listening to my MP3 player & reading a spot of Shakespeare, when just as ‘patience’ by Take That came on, I looked at Arunachala. There is a legend that it was here that the dreadlock’d god Siva produced a lingam of fire – a measureless column – & won the submission of Vishmu & Brahma. Perhaps it was some mythological memory of an ancyent eruption, but I swear down, as the sun was setting the clouds were in just the right place to produce the same effect – a mighty golden column coming out of the mountain. At the very same time there was a wee cloud just big enough to cover the very peak of the mountain, in the same spot where I was blessed in Siva’s name by that Guru. I really did feel it – the mind monkeys had cleared from my mind on that occasion & this time I felt that Siva was saying ‘nice one son’ & wishing me well on my way
The next day, just as I was about to leave, I woke up to the sound of the rain. ‘Not again’ I cursed, wanting to hit the road, but then the rains cleared & Aranachala was revealed in all her glory, a scintillating rainbow arched perfectly from flank to flank. Remarkably, the same wee cloud as yesterday was again at the summit. ‘That Siva’s at it again’ I thought & finally left town. Three buses later, beyond those scattered heaps of boulders that form the regions hills, I was heading towards the coast, passing several large lakes where paddy fields once were – the devastating consequences of the recent rains. Apparently in the state these past couple of weeks there have been landslides, 700 bridges have collapsed, over a hundred dead
Mamallapuram is a bit of a tourist hotspot, with a fine beach & some amazing temples carved out of the rock. It got wiped out by the Tsunami in 2004, but is well back on its feet again. I’m staying in a far-too wicked room for 300 rupees. I’m basically paying 2 pounds fifty more than last time – which was only 1.50 itself – but now I get a massive marble-floored room, this huge oak table (perfect for writing), a clean double bed, a wicked fan, a big TV with all the channels & a cool balcony overlooking the street – with not a hint of damp or mosquitos anywhere! Suffice it to say I blagg’d the price down off a naive young guy, who got a proper rollicking off the boss when he found out. (I should be paying at least 500). Negotiating the cheaper price meant buying in bulk, so I’ve been forced to hole up for a week. By the way, I haven’t seen one advent calendar as of yet – the chocolate would probably melt – but I still miss them. I reckon there is a market for traveler-friendly portable advent calendars, with wee little fans to keep the chocolate cool (Dragons Den here I come).