Temple Towns

Lucknow. 28th November 2020

I stayed in Lucknow from mid October until the end of November. Looking back, it’s hard to work out why. I had a few jobs to do on the bike but the main reason was trying to deal with the Foreign Residents Registration Office – the dreaded FRRO. This organisation is a wonderful piece of Indian bureaucracy, mostly designed to frustrate and annoy foreigners as they try to get visas registered, extended and generally sorted out.

My problem was that I had needed to leave India within six months of arriving unless I registered my visa within two weeks of arrival. Then I’d be OK to stay for the full twelve month period of the visa. But ..…. because I’d expected to make a home visit in June/July, and had only arrived in February, I didn’t see the need. Covid scuppered those plans and I was worried about what might happen when I eventually flew out. Indian immigration can ban you from returning for periods of time, depending on the severity of your rule breaking. I most definitely didn’t want that to happen so felt a real need to get everything ship shape. They weren’t keen on registering my visa after all this time, and definitely wouldn’t extend the original visa, so I applied for an exit permit instead. This was eventually issued, but only up until the 31st December. I needed Jay’s help to get it all done and we both had to complete lots of forms. It’s all done on-line so isn’t difficult. The only problem was that I didn’t plan to leave until February so would need to apply again later. A problem for another day. But it all took much longer than expected, hence my extended stay.

When I bought my Himalayan I’d used a shop called Race Dynamics to obtain some accessories. They’d been in the process of fitting out a new shop but it was delayed by the Covid lockdown. But now it was finished and Jay took me to the opening day. They had an opening ceremony, to bless the new business, then fed us with food and cake. There were plenty of people there and plenty of bikes parked outside. A young guy named Rudra chatted to me and asked me to meet him the next day so he could show me around a bit.

Rudra’s mother and her shrine.

The first place we went to was his house, very spacious and airy. I met his mother, brother and sister, the latter two speaking very good English. His mother was lovely and showed me around the house. She was especially proud of their shrine to Ganesha. His sister teaches English at a local school. The only occupied room on the first floor was Rudra’s. I joked that the empty ones would be great for when he married and had a family. Most Indian men don’t get married until they’re about thirty. Rudra is only eighteen so he looked a bit startled at that suggestion. His father came home later. He’s a police inspector and is often at work for several days at a time. They gave me some gifts before I left. Very lovely people. Rudra took me to see a newly opened shopping mall, full of retail heaven, if that happens to be your desire. I was amused to see a range of “work from home” clothing in one store. Another had a range called “Antiviral”. Covid 19 as a marketing message? Well, why not?

Covid marketing probably works as well as any other.

I spent some time thinking about where to go when I left Lucknow. I very much wanted to visit Nepal. I was in touch with a woman who runs a tourist business there. Nepal was due to open its borders sometime in November, which looked hopeful. But she advised me of a friend who got turned away at the land border and also of another friend who got in but wasn’t allowed to go back to India. I’d forgotten about that aspect of the border problem and put Nepal off limits for now. I could have gone to Uttarakhand but it was getting too cold. The obvious choice then, was to head south. The thought of somewhere warm to spend Christmas was a very attractive one.

I took the opportunity to explore some places in Lucknow, while I waited for the wheels of bureaucracy to grind their slow journey. Jay and I had already been to Rumi Gate but only to see the outside. This time I was able to get in. Correctly called Rumi Darwaza, this near thirty metre high edifice was built in 1784 by Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula. It used to be the entrance to the old city but as Lucknow expanded around it a palace was built and the gate became its entrance. It looks spectacular but perhaps the most notable thing about it is that it was a product of the Nawab’s scheme to feed the poor. Whenever there was a famine he would commission a new building, thereby providing them with work. A useful bit of early Keynesian economics. More info about the Darwaza is here.

Nearby was Chota Imambara, a building similar to the Taj Mahal in that it was a monument to a ruler and his family. It’s design is also similar and houses the remains of Muhammad Ali Shah and his mother, although he built it while he was alive. It’s used for religious festivals and has two mosques in the grounds. A very relaxing place to walk around and to photograph. More info here.

Very beautiful in its own right, despite the Taj Mahal similarities.

Jay has several business interests, one of which is an Ayurvedic Clinic, in which he has an investment. He also plays an active role there as a counsellor. If he’s as good at helping other people as he is at helping me, I’m sure he must be pretty successful. Ayurvedic medicine developed alongside Hinduism itself and taught practitioners such skills as suturing, removing kidney stones and other minor operations. Medicines were mostly plant based and were as effective as anything else that was available prior to the development of modern medicine. These days it sits alongside other alternative and complementary treatments. However the Indian Medical Association now regards its practice in modern medicine as quackery. A recent study of Indian made Ayurvedic products sold over the internet found that they contain toxic levels of heavy metals, including lead, mercury and arsenic. Having said that, it is a “whole body” treatment so can carry many benefits. It’s certainly extremely popular in India, fitting in very well with cultural beliefs.

The calendar brought a season of celebration to the city. The main one was Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Many shops stocked gifts, lanterns and decorations. The gift baskets tended to include chocolate, sweets, nuts etc. I took the opportunity to say “thank you” to Jay by buying one for him. He was very pleased with it. The other celebratory events were weddings. November and December is the Wedding Season. I suffered from this after I left Lucknow.

Diwali gifts and goods for sale.

Something that affected me quite badly before I left the city was the dreadful level of pollution. The fireworks from Diwali didn’t help things, but keeping the air reasonably clean relies on breezes and rain. Both of those were missing at this time and I suffered quite badly from a bad chest and sinuses. About 300 metres away from the hostel was a tall office building. For most of the day it was half hidden by the pollutants in the air, as was the sun. Medication helped but I was very keen to get out of town, fast! The day finally came, after a six week hiatus, when I was able to shed the shackles and machinations of the FRRO,  pack my bags and head off.

My plan was to ride across to Kolkata and to catch up with some friends, both en route and in the city. Then I was going to ride south and find somewhere pleasant for Christmas. I would wander around a bit, visiting various places, in the way that I normally do.

Sugar cane harvest. Plenty of these on the roads.

The first of these was Kushinagar, still in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and a centre for Buddhism. Jay had worked his usual magic and connected me with one of his friends from a town near to my destination. Shashwat met me at the chai stall I’d stopped at for lunch, took me to a café whose owner he knew, where he treated me to another lunch, then led me to Kushinagar. Because it was dark by then the ride became a stark reminder of how badly worn my unavailable-in-India helmet visor really was. But we got there in the end.

Shashwat had worked some magic of his own and organised a bed for me at a Buddhist Pilgrims’ hostel. Free of charge too. At first I thought he’d called in a favour or something, but it seems free accommodation is the norm at these places. A donation was expected and duly delivered. The dorm room was basic but the bed was comfortable. I was the only guest in the building and I couldn’t help but wonder how the five guests in the room would have managed with only one electric socket to share. A strange thought maybe, but these are the things that travellers tend to fuss about. Later on some food arrived and, just like the room, it was also basic and free. Meanwhile Shashwat had ridden back to Gorakhpur.

Well off Buddhists often donate to support temples and their activities.

I had been told that a local reporter wanted to interview me and I met him next morning, in the sunny forecourt of the monastery next to the hostel, where we sat and talked. As well as asking about my journey generally, he also asked me what my message to India was. I simply said to educate your children, especially those from poor families. He also asked me what I thought of Prime Minister Modi. I told him that I saw him as a divisive figure who wasn’t there for all Indians, only Hindus. Given that he was from a Hindu newspaper, I wondered whether that comment would be published. I’ve never seen the article so I don’t know.

Later on a guy named Rameese came to see me and took me out on his bike to show me around. We visited the main temple, the Matha Kunwar Shrine. Then the Mahaivarna Stupa, where the Buddha was reckoned to have died. Lastly we went to the Ramaphar Stupa where he was reckoned to have been cremated. These events and locations explain why Kushinagar is such an important place for Buddhists. We weren’t out very long because Rameese was busy organising his son’s wedding. It reinforced the generosity that people have shown to me that he was prepared to take time out of his very busy day just to show me around.

Later on I walked back to the Matha Kunwar Shrine for a better look around the grounds. There was a Buddha bell and a couple of smaller temples next to a lake. Across the road was a pretty looking Hindhu temple. While I was looking at it a group of guys came up for a chat and photos. One of them said they’d been following me. I was walking too fast for them. Well, at that time I had a bruised foot so was walking slowly, for me. How fast do Indian people normally walk then, I wondered?

A nice Hindu temple, among all the Buddhist buildings.

The next day turned out to be both busy and challenging. In the morning I went to the monastery and was taken inside. I entered a room that looked like a throne room, or perhaps an audience room. The head of the monastery was sitting on a throne-like golden chair, in a golden room, whose walls had golden decorations and were lined with golden chairs. I detected a theme here! I was given tea and toast and chatted with The Elder, to use his proper title, while another guy there interpreted for us. Then we all went to visit the Elder’s special project, just a little way out of town.

The Elder in his golden room, on his golden chair.

The Aananda Kuti is a small, new temple, with some basic accommodation attached. I was taught how to correctly conduct a ‘Namaste’ to the Buddha shrine and then shown around the garden. This is the Elder’s special project. Various plants have been donated from all the Buddhist countries around the world. But for the most part it’s a very large vegetable garden, which feeds the monks and is tended by them under the watchful eye of the Elder. I was offered a white carrot to try, which tasted like radish, and I didn’t like it all that much.

White, shaped like a carrot but tasted like a radish.

I headed for Patna and this journey became a horror story. I lost my phone signal which meant I couldn’t use Google Maps to double check the GPS route. As a result of this I went a longer way. That led me into the city of Copra, a nightmare of roadworks, busy street markets and queues of parked trucks, many kilometres long. Time ticked by and darkness descended. Although I was now on more or less open road the solid traffic was constantly stopped by endless weddings. As described previously, Hindu weddings often include a celebratory parade along the streets, with a band at the front and  the happy couple in a palanquin in the middle. They never move very quickly. And neither did I. I was due to meet some guys from the Enfield National Riders’ Club, Patna branch. They’d asked me to connect them with my live Google Maps location so they could monitor my progress. I’d set it up but had forgotten to press the ‘Go’ button. So these poor guys were hanging around until 8.30, when I finally made it there.

The shrine of the Fifth Guru, Guru ka Bagh.

Anuphav and Hemant had booked me a room at the Sikh Gurdwara dedicated to Guru ka Bagh, the fifth Guru. It was a big place, with a shrine to the Guru. There were dozens of rooms in which visitors could stay (not for free, this time, but cheap enough). All Gurdwaras (door to the Guru) contain a shrine to their particular Guru, but also have a Langar Hall. This is a place where volunteers serve food to anyone who chooses to eat there, for free. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor, whether Sikh or not, you will be served a simple vegetarian meal, usually of rice, dal and chapatti. There will be urns of tea as well. You just collect a dish, sit down and wait to be served. This goes on twenty four hours a day. When you’ve finished you just rinse off the dishes and put them in the washing sink. There is a donation box for those who can afford it. I had the same meal for breakfast too. The Langar Hall often has a library, workshop, study area etc.

Eating at the Langar Hall.

My friends gave me some flowers and some ERNC badges as a token of welcome. They’re Hindus but when I asked them what are the tenets of the Sikh religion they said that it’s all about serving the people, the country or whatever, which is why so many Sikhs serve in the military and the police. This quote is from Wikipedia: “The core beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator; divine unity and equality of all humankind; engaging in seva (‘selfless service’); striving for justice for the benefit and prosperity of all; and honest conduct and livelihood while living a householder’s life. Following this standard, Sikhism rejects claims that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth.” This the link to the full article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikhism

The Gurdwara of the Tenth Guru.

The Gurdwara illuminated for a festival. (Photo from the internet.)

In the morning we walked across to the Bal Leela Maini Sangat, the gurdwara dedicated to the tenth and final guru, Gobind Singh. He was the final one because he decreed that the Sikh holy scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, as his successor. The building was spectacular. Very large, in white stone and with some very decorative features around the roof domes. During festivals it is illuminated with different coloured lights, which gives it a very magical appearance. The shrine inside was very decorative. Sitting in front of it were three musicians, two of whom were playing a rectangular squeeze box which opened at the side as they played. A very interesting place to visit.

Shrine to the tenth Guru.

And the band plays on.

The guys led me out of town to the road for my next destination, Rajgir. But on the way I stopped off to visit the ancient university at Nalandar, claimed to be the oldest in the world. It was built in the sixth century, as confirmed by Chinese writers who visited it. It was dedicated to the study of Buddhism but was buried by the Moghul invaders when they took over India. It was discovered by British archaeologists in 1876. An old guy, with very bowed out legs, helped me through the ticket buying process at the entrance. The price for foreigners was the worst I’d come across so far, at a money grabbing Rs600. I engaged him as a guide and he slowly showed me around.

It covered a very large area, I’d guess about one square kilometre. Most of the walls were intact, There were ten monasteries, where the students lived, and many large and small temples. Once my guide had told his stories I took a longer walk around, soaking in the ancient atmosphere and being very impressed by the build quality of the remaining walls. It was a fascinating place.

One of the university temples.

It’s hard to imagine that this was buried for several centuries.

In Rajgir I found a hotel for a couple of nights. The town had some places I wanted to explore and the following day left me quite footsore. First was the Ajatashatru Stupa, which turned out to be not much more than a pile of stones. But the Viswa Shanti Stupa was much nicer, albeit a long walk to get there. It was closed for lunch when I arrived so I tried to enjoy some very hot Hakka Noodles. I watched the temple monkeys at play. These were much tamer than I’d seen before and more willing to get close to humans. Rather than employ snatch and run techniques they would take food from the hand. One of them even drank water from a bottle held by a visitor. My opinion of monkeys went up a notch.

A bit for friendly than those I’d met before.

There was a ropeway up to the top of the hill, rather like a ski lift. The alternative was six hundred and sixty steps. I chose the ropeway. The stupa and its surrounds were very well laid out, with a golden Buddha placed at each cardinal. The square base had a lion on each corner. There was a great view from up there, which was spoiled by the mist. Such a shame. Plenty more monkeys to see though, keeping the visitors amused.

Monkey business.

I had a call from Anubhav telling me he’d arranged for me to meet some guys during tomorrow’s ride. He said I’d be passing through a very nice area on the way. I hoped he was right.

It was, indeed, a good ride to the town of Koderma, where I met some guys from the Roaring Pistons Club. They gave me chai and some food, and we had a chat before I moved on to the village of Khayrasole, where my friend Neel lived. It was great to see him and his wife, Threesa, once more and I was made to feel very welcome. Threesa was studying for an English degree, last time I was there. She’d achieved this now and was thinking about studying pharmacy. But meanwhile she’s enjoying being a housewife. I imagine Neel is enjoying that too.

The Roaring Pistons Club made me welcome.

While I was there I took the bike to be washed. He didn’t do as good a job as I would have liked but as it only cost Rs40 I couldn’t complain. One of the problems with the bike I ride is that the side stand is a bit too long. This means that the bike tends to sit too upright and is likely to fall over, especially when loaded. The solution is to shorten it by cutting a small section out of it. While the welder was doing this I went to the nearby ATM for some cash. This isn’t usually noteworthy except that It wouldn’t accept either of my cards, unlike before. Back at the welder’s I forked out the princely sum of Rs25. That was fine by me!

A few days ago I’d posted some photos of the bike on Facebook. A message arrived from Invictus Panniers saying that the rear panniers looked to be hanging a bit low. I sent him a couple of photos of the repaired split, from a few weeks before, and he immediately asked me for an address so he could send me new ones. Now that’s what I call good customer service. I put him off because I was going to be constantly on the move for a while.

It was nice to see Neel again.

I met up with Neel and his friends that evening then left for Kolkata next morning. Because of the coal mining and steel works nearby, the area in which Neel lives tends to be very polluted. As I got closer to Kolkata the pollution cleared up. Usually it’s the other way round. I was meeting my friend Saikat and he’d managed to find me a hotel, not very far from where he lives. Importantly, it wasn’t very far from the chai and food stalls that he usually frequents. It was really good to see him again and I quickly remembered how much I enjoy his company.

The bike was in need of a service and Soikat put me in touch with Sudeep, a friend of his who ran a bike shop. Initially I was going to go there but remembered that the Enfield dealer would do it for free and that the service book needed to be stamped to maintain the warranty. I found an Enfield agent to do it instead. But I did use Sudeep’s services in the end. I noticed that the rear rack was bending downwards from the weight of my heavy bag, and had cracked on the bends. I took it to his workshop for repair. Sudeep showed me some handlebars that he had on his Himalayan, which I liked very much.

Heavy luggage isn’t kind to thin metal.

But welding and strengthening sorted it out nicely.

I rode over to his workshop and got all the jobs done. The rear rack welded and strengthened. New handlebars fitted. The spotlights moved to a better location. A few other jobs that needed doing were also done. A very productive day. Labour and parts only came to Rs4500. I was very happy with that. Then I rode over to his other shop, where he sold clothing and accessories. I was very taken by a seat cushion he had. Mine was starting to wear out a bit and needed replacing. But I left it for another day. We had a long chat, which he videoed, meaning it was more of an interview. Sudeep is a very knowledgeable guy and very friendly too. It had been a productive and pleasant day. It reminded me how friendly and helpful Indian people are, especially bikers. It makes having problems almost a pleasure.

New handlebars, new phone holder and a new view to enjoy.

My birthday arrived. Sudeep had offered to take me to the Chinese market for breakfast. He collected me and we rode across the city only to find it not there. It either only opens at weekends or had been closed because of the Covid lockdown. I suspected the latter. We found another place, where we had some very tasty aloo parathar instead. While we were riding around I noticed some striking heritage buildings, which had very decorative façades. Sadly they were in a very dilapidated condition and were crying out for refurbishment. I was very surprised that they hadn’t been snapped up for conversion into hotels.

This building has all the potential, it just needs the investment.

Later that afternoon I went to visit another guy I’d got to know last time I was in Kolkata. Rony had found me a mechanic to do some work on my CCM. At that time he’d been a taxi driver but had suffered very badly during the Covid lockdown. Better times had come his way and he was now manager of a KTM dealership. It was a little way out of the city, in an area I hadn’t seen before. The bike shop was split in two, with one building selling Pulsars and various others, while Rony’s section dealt with KTMs and Husqvarnas. But these weren’t the usual off-road Huskies. They were the new range of mid-sized street bikes, and looked very smart.

Nice bike, from Husqvarna.

Rony asked me if I’d like a sandwich. I happened to mention that it was my birthday and to my complete surprise along with the food came a cake for me. He’d even gathered together some of the other staff to sing Happy Birthday to me. What a wonderful gesture. The sandwiches were good but the chocolate cake was delicious. A very nice day. It was great to be able to celebrate rather than for it just to be another day on the calendar. The icing on the cake of surprise was a phone call from Steve and Amelia, the Aussie couple I’d been with in Cherapunjee. We had a lovely catch up chat, including about their forthcoming baby.

We all enjoyed the cake.

The ATM issue I referred to earlier was still ongoing. I tended to use the State Bank of India (SBI) because there was no fee for withdrawal, unlike most other banks. Even in Kolkata they wouldn’t accept my card so I reached the conclusion that they’d simply withdrawn the facility for foreign cards. I had already discovered that most Indian businesses – those that accepted cards –  wouldn’t accept foreign ones. Having said that, like the occasional oasis in the wilderness, some did. I think these were international companies though. It was all very confusing. Fortunately I had plenty of cash and I could use the commercial banks if need be.

Saikat told me he was heading to his village to visit relatives for the weekend. I needed to get on the road anyway, so it was a good time to say goodbye. I was hanging around the food stalls when he came to see me. We chatted for a while, man hugged, and then he left. These partings are always sad because you never know if you’ll meet again.

I spent plenty of time with Saikat at the local food stall, the meeting place for men about town.

I had decided to spend Christmas in the city of Pondicherry, officially called Puducherry these days, but always referred to as Pondy. It’s a coastal city and is geared up for holidaymakers. Covid restrictions had ended and hotels were open. Most importantly, it was likely to be sunny and warm. It was about 1850 kilometres further south and I had ten days to cover the distance. The plan was to explore some places on the way down. I usually just look on the internet for suggested places to see. I made a list and headed south to explore, secure in the knowledge that my luggage rack was now firmly fixed and keen to try out my new handlebars. We travellers find our delights in the smallest of things you know.

I only travelled about 250kms next day and spent the night in a ‘nothing very special’ town. I went to look at a temple, following Google maps to get there. Their location took me to a compound housing the government department for lighthouses. When you go to religious places they always hope that you’ll see the light, but not this time. The other temples were outside of town so I didn’t bother with them. I did try another SBI ATM though, with the same result as before. I tried one of the commercial banks and it worked fine, but at a cost. Annoying.

Irony alert! On the wall of the local police compound.

Back at the hotel I was just settling down when there was a knock at the door. “You’ve got to leave,” came the message. “Why?” “Because we’re not registered to accommodate foreigners,” was the reply. “So why the hell did you book me in then?” I muttered, as I packed up my gear. They told me of another hotel at Rs2,000 – twice the price. But I found one at Rs1,500. Very welcoming. I tried using my credit card to pay but it was refused. Then they tried a different terminal and it went through with no problems. I think that if India wants to welcome more foreign visitors it needs to sort out some basics of its financial infrastructure.

Paradeep was the next town I reached. I’d started the day well, with a good breakfast and a decent cup of tea, and it continued that way with some pleasant riding. Not too many towns, with a very calming rural aspect unfolding beneath my wheels. Lots of cattle sharing the road with me. As I passed a field, that was lower that the road, four or five cattle suddenly lurched up the bank and into the road at a startled pace. As I passed by I saw some monkeys down in the field, who’d obviously chased the cattle out. They can be aggressive little thugs sometimes. I passed lots of mandirs (small temples) and stopped beside one for lunch. There were people bathing and washing clothes at the ghat leading into the village tank. Across the way were cattle grazing among the hayricks. The mandir looked very pretty. A perfect rural scene on a warm, sunny day.

The village tank. A typical rural scene next to the mandir.

The main road into my overnight stop of Paradeep Port was in bad shape and was busy with trucks, covered in red dust. Iron ore is exported from there, accounting for the dusty coating. The port is relatively new, the foundation stone having been formally laid in 1962. Its main cargo is containers but it also handles a lot of minerals. I headed for the better part of town, stopping at the large beach on the way. But what I needed was a hotel. As I rode slowly around the town a guy on a scooter offered me help. The upshot was that he found me a good hotel and negotiated a discount for me, then treated me to a coffee. At his request I visited his home in the morning to meet his family and for tea and snacks. Another useful and pleasant random meeting to enjoy.

Puri was the next stop, following another enjoyable ride. I was in the state of Odissa now, very much an area of agriculture, most of it sugar cane. There’s several large lakes near this town, which I lined up to visit next day. But first I needed a hotel. I rode along the beach front but decided the hotels there would be too expensive. Further into town  I found a nice place, quite close to the very large Shri Jagannath temple, which was surrounded by crowds of people. The owner of the hotel showed me his very pretty 1965 Enfield Bullet, which he started up for me. It ticked over very sweetly and I could understand his pride in it.

A classic bike with a gentle style.

I went out for a walk expecting to see the temple nicely lit up at night. But no. To my surprise it was in complete darkness. It was closed because of Covid and I supposed that was the reason. I walked down to the busy beach area instead but there wasn’t much to see other than a fairly innocuous market on the sand. It all had the kind of “off season” air to it that holiday places sometimes do. I wasn’t inspired.

Next day was much more interesting. I rode out to the Sun Temple at Kornak. This place is an excellent example of the type. It had been built in 1250 but had fallen into ruin over the years. It was discovered by the British but all that was left was the Mandapa, which is a pillared hall for public worship.. There had been a thirty metre high tower, among other buildings, but these had gone. A Sun Temple always has wheels alongside the building and horses seeming to pull the chariot towards the rising sun. The decorated carved stone wheels are 3.7 metres in diameter and sit alongside the building. At the front are seven stone horses. The building has been beautifully restored and the surrounding grounds are very well laid out. It’s a remarkable place. More info about it can be found here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konark_Sun_Temple

Wheels and horses, heading towards the rising sun.

The carving all round the temple was impressive.

One oddity I saw when I was leaving was three transgendered women who I believe were Kinnars, or Hijra. These are inter-sex people who are now legally recognised by the government as a third sex. But despite their recognition in law they are heavily discriminated against, often working as prostitutes. At temples they try to adopt a similar role to traditional temple dancers and singers. They often live in closed communities led by a guru. They’re forced to live from begging and very low paid work – if they can get. It seems a sad situation to me. A group of people who seem to fall through the cracks of society. They’re totally different from the ‘Ladyboys’ that Thailand is famous for. An explanation is here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_(South_Asia)

India’s third sex.

I rode from there to Chilika Lake, a brackish lagoon. It is one of the largest in the world and hosts over one hundred and sixty different species of migratory birds. On the ground there are about 150,000 fishing people living in 132 villages on its banks. I think what I’m saying is that it’s BIG! The road there was nothing special to ride, except for when I stopped for lunch and a random passer by stopped to say hello and took a photo of me. I felt like one of those birds.

After finding a hotel I went for a walk to the viewpoint on the lake shore. It was late in the day, with poor light. There was a mist laying over the glassy surface of the lake, reducing visibility of the islands out in the water. There were people around though, some out boating, other just looking. The lake shore had various boats moored up, waiting for daylight fishermen and keen tourists. The whole place had a very eerie feeling to it, almost like stepping into a painting yet to come to life. I liked it and, given more time, would have explored other areas of the lake.

Lakeside view, but no birds.

The next few days were just for riding. Some of it nice, some of it roadworks hell. Some filling stations accepted my card, some didn’t. One of the hotels was expensive and bad, the others were cheap and OK. Travelling brings variety, some of it good, some not. C’est la vie. One upside was that I found that Canara bank ATMs gave me cash for free. That was good. I also discovered Dhosa, a kind of fluffy pancake, made from rice flour. It was cooked in a large, flat pan with no oil. You ate it with spicy sauce and some vegetable mix. Cheap, tasty, and healthy.

I reached Chennai, South India’s largest city, and a massive industrial centre. It houses one third of India’s automobile industry, as well as other manufacturing centres. It is the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu and houses the Tamil film industry. It used to be called Madras, famed for very hot curries. It also has a very large, and extremely busy, beach. It sits alongside the Bay of Bengal, on what’s called the Coromandel Coast. When I walked down to the beach the place was heaving with humanity, some on bikes, some in cars, but all trying to get into the limited parking area. It was a Sunday, so I suppose that’s why. The further end of it was where the fishermen had their boats and sold their catch. It was a real mess of nets and fish waste, and quite a contrast to the tourist  area.

Chennai beach madness.

Inland a bit I visited the very lovely Kapaleeshwarar temple. Unlike some others, there were no restrictions on taking photos, so I could snap away at the colourful carvings on the various buildings. These are invariably based on the Ramayana, the epic tale of the Hindu gods. The tale is as colourful as the carvings of the characters. Changing religion, I went to see the Santhome Cathedral, a very beautiful building. It’s home to Saint Thomas Basilica, which houses his tomb. It’s reckoned to be one of only three Basilicas which were built over the tomb of one of the disciples. My cynical mind immediately asked, “How would they know?” Christianity was unknown in the area, and most other places too, at that time. But Wikipedia suggests he came to the south west coast of India in AD52, where he founded seven churches, and was martyred in Chennai in AD72. So it seems I was wrong to be ‘doubting’.

Colourful and very detailed carving on these buildings.

It’s a beautiful building, with St Thomas’ tomb in the crypt.

In the morning, after more dhosas for breakfast, I headed down the very enjoyable East Coast Road, to the city of Puducherry. It’s very much a holiday city and has a different history to most of the rest of India. After that little teaser, this blog post ends. More soon.

Temple pheasants.

The fish selling area further along Chenna Bbeachi is smelly and scruffy.

This very modern lighthouse has a lift rather than stairs. But it wasn’t open.