January 7: Varkala – We begin three days of beach life
Varkala is a beach resort for Europeans. Its like Kovalam to the south but a bit more sattvic with many Ayurvedic clinics, a government nature-cure hospital, and endless Tibetans and Kashmiris selling pretty much the same things: shawls, hippy chic, modern brass items and Free Tibet paraphernalia. The spiritual seekers and the vibe tourists are all here in their hundreds, baggy trousered, flowing topped, suntanned and the ‘I’m in India’ look.
Varkala; down on the beach
All the shops and hotels are spread out along a mile of clifftop, and thats where all the people are. This being India there are no safety barriers or warning signs. It looks as if some of the cliff has already fallen into the sea 200 feet below.
Varkala; the view from the cliff top
Breakfast is in a nearby ‘Juice Shack’ and other meals in a vegetarian restaurant around the corner. I’m a bit suspicious of the restaurant because it doesn’t look too clean, but it turns out they produce great meals during the whole stay and we don’t get sick. Our rooms are in a newly built block so they are quite well done and free from grubbiness. I chant, read, explore the cliff top and read and talk more.
January 8: We are barred from a temple and a palace but find a museum.
To Trivandrum – or Tiruvanantapuram as it is now – with Peter, driven by Krishna, our man at the wheel. Its over one hour to get there and we arrive just before 11.00. It is hot, but we remove our shirts in preparation for darshan at the Padmanabhaswami temple, a ‘brother temple’ to the Adi Keshava and Janardana temples in Tiruvattur and Varkala respectively. The brahmana at the East Gate tells us to go round to the North gate. Uh-oh, I don’t like the sound of that. We are in bare feet and the tarmac is like a frying pan on our tender British toes. The brahmana at the North gate directs us to the Guard Room, which sounds ominous, and the head guard directs us to the King’s palace, where we can get permission in writing to enter the temple. Well, we patiently go to the palace – a trek across town – but the guard there tells us that: “They always send Westerners here, but they never get permission.”
Gate tower of the Padmanabha Swami temple showing the rather nice Guard Room
Next is the Napier Museum, where we do get to see lots of deities, sadly now no longer worshipped. They are bronzes, naturally, dating back to 1100AD and through to the 1700s. Absolutely amazing craftsmanship. There are intricately carved ivories and fantastic wood carvings. The other museum in the same gardens holds original paintings by Ravi Varma but we don’t visit.
The Napier Museum, where someone finally lets us in..
A visit to another older palace reveals a great collection of the king’s posessions including white marble Krishnas from the 1700s and weapons, dancing rooms, a small meditation chamber, and incredibly decorated ceilings. A gorgeous painting of Vishnu on Sesha takes my eye. But they have not organised a ‘museum shop’ to squeeze extra revenue from the tourists. Lunch is at a nearby air-conditioned restaurant – it is really hot down here – and I have dosa and pillau rice, just to be on the safe side.
January 9: Sunrise meditations and an old temple.
Another restful day with good chanting on the cliff top at sunrise. I see Gail and Moira already sitting like meditating yogis down on the golden sand chanting their rounds. They look out to the horizon as the sun slowly rises over the waves.
The Janardhana Swami temple in Varkala. The architecture here is different from the north or the east of India.
After breakfast we walk along the beach to the Janardhana Swami temple. Its about 800 years old and as well as an altar to Vishnu, also holds shrines to Ayapan and Hanuman. There is an enormous banyan tree in the courtyard under which musicians stand and play their ‘violins.’ They will sing a song of offering on your behalf and place your name inside the song.
There’s another tree where hundreds of worshippers have tied pieces of ribbon to the branches and left dozens of plastic dolls. When you see this inside a shrine in India, it usually means that couples have prayed for fertility here then offered a ‘child’ if they’ve been successful.
An English woman with a young baby is inside the temple. It is the child’s first grains ceremony, the annaprashna, and as a few rice grains are placed within his tiny mouth the nageshvaram pipers and drummers begin to loudly play, surprising the child. I ask the mother where she is from and she explains that she’s from Nottingham and her husband is from Kerala. They return here for all important family occasions.
Some swimming on the way back, lunch, reading (I pick up a copy of the Narayaneeyam, a 1,000 verse summary of the Srimad Bhagavatam) a little shopping, then I telephone my mother and sister who are surprised to hear from me.
January 10: Beetroot juice, rubber trees, and a mosquito convention
The humble beetroot – do not underestimate its cleansing power
I rose early and managed some more good chanting. What a difference it makes to the entire day. Chanting japa before the sun rises should never be underestimated. I have beetroot juice with ginger for breakfast and we are all packed and travelling away from Varkala by 11.00.
We stop off at Kovalam just to see why its a top holiday destination. Its warm already but raining very lightly and the beach is already busier than Varkala, so we don’t feel we made the wrong choice of beach. I don’t get any further than a nearby antique shop where I find a nice heavy bronze panchapatra, the vessel used for holding water during puja. I have others of course, but a man can never have too many panchapatras.
The Western Ghats. India is not as flat as you might think..
Kerala gives way to the Western Ghat mountains which signal that we are entering Tamil Nadu. We cross the border and the script on the road signs and shop fronts changes. Gradually the local people become noticeably darker in colour. We stop off at a roadside restaurant that has an enormous ‘VEG’ sign. The owner has met our devotees before when they passed through on padayatra, a walking pilgrimage which travelled all around India in 1986 and for a few years after that.
Tamil script, one of my favourites
The restaurant is set in a rubber tree plantation of 300 trees. They are all dripping the white milk which gradually turns into rubber. The proprietor makes 500 rupees – around £6.00 – every day just from the rubber. A truck comes every day to make the collection.
The dreaded mozzy. Take all precautions to guard yourself against them!
We reach our hotel at Nagercoil. There seems to be a mosquito convention going on in this particular hotel, and I am bitten three times in as many minutes. The insects probably like foreign food! The town does not seem to have any distinguishing features but there is a large bus station and I gather that it has built up over the years mainly as a busy crossroads town. Our hotel is right on the main street above the traffic but after I take all adequate precautions so I won’t be eaten in the night I fall asleep quite easily.
January 11: An even better day!
What a trip to the spiritual world this morning was. I chanted twelve good rounds from 5.30 in my room and we all met up at the bus to go the few miles to the village of Tiruvattur and the Adi Keshava temple where Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu discovered the Brahma Samhita, the prayers of Brahma when he attained the grace of the Lord. It is around 8.30 when we arrive and, walking up eighteen steep steps, are greeted by one of only four brahmanas serving the Deity here.
Adi Keshava temple in the village of Tiruvattar.
He is to be our guide and takes us into a wide cloister passage with intricately carved pillars – 224 to be precise, all with different forms of Lakshmi. The inner area encloses the most amazingly carved wooden mandapa (canopy) I have ever seen. Hundreds of figures in dark teak, all crafted by expert hands 500 years ago.
224 pillars line the cloisters of the Adi Keshava temple
Our guide then shows us the spot where the Lord recited the Brahma Samhita. We sit in the mandapa, only a few feet away, and chant the verses of the Samhita. It is a very moving experience.
A popular artistic rendering of Lord Vishnu (Adi Keshava) reclining on the serpent Ananta Sesha. Brahma can be seen atop the lotus issuing from Vishnu’s navel
Then we finally get to have darshan. The Deity of the reclining Lord Vishnu is eighteen feet long and visible in sections through three windows. Although the chamber is very dark, and the form of the Deity is black, the pujari lights up His face and we gasp at His beauty. He is truly amazing to see, and awe-inspiring to pray to. After a short arati offered to Krishna, we give donations and continue our journey feeling very blessed to have come to this lesser visited place.
Padmanabha-puram Palace. The top picture shows the front of the palace with the sacred conch-shell symbol on the lawn. The lower shows some of the wood carving
We visit the Padmanabha-puram Palace next, an intriguing architectural creation that really showed us the life of kings of the past. So much carving – and so much space for the royal family to live.
This is the location of Kanya Kumari – the ‘Land’s End’ of India – an awfully long way from Delhi!
After this it is time to go to Kanya Kumari – the Land’s End of India. It is here that the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meet. South of here there is just ocean – all the way to Antarctica. It is a tourist spot of course, where just about everybody who is selling anything sells shells and postcards. There is a very large statue of the famous Tamil poet and moralist Tiruvallur who wrote the handbook on life known as the Tirukurral. It is an enormous statue actually, built on a rock in the sea, looking back at India. He is 133 feet tall, weighs 7000 tons and is made of 3,681 solid granite blocks. His book, by the way, is a good read.
A shell-seller on the sea-shore. The gigantic Tiruvallur statue is in the distance.
Out on another rock is the spot where Vivekananda meditated before going to America. There’s a temple on yet another rock, a Gandhi Museum painted bright pink, and a ‘Viewing Tower’ where tourists can climb up to have a good look at the sun setting over the distant horizon. We find another high spot on top of a hotel and sit there for a few minutes while the sun sinks behind some clouds and darkness comes quickly. I was glad we didn’t pay for the Viewing Tower.
Catholic church in Kanya Kumari
After sunset, and just a little way from the shore, we visit a small Christian church. We feel we are in Mexico because the church sits in a town square which is entirely composed of golden sand, now cooling to the touch. This being India, we must remove our shoes before entering the church, and inside there are no pews, only a few chairs right at the back. Its a Catholic church of course, so the Virgin Mary is here, but garlanded and decorated with flowers as the deity would be in a Hindu temple.