There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Kanyakumari, The End of India (and Beyond!): Part 11 of India's Deep South

The Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Kanyakumari

Kanyakumari, at the very tip of the Indian subcontinent, is a seaside resort, but, as so often in India, it is also a place of pilgrimage. It had been busy yesterday, but today was Saturday and from early morning the pilgrims/day trippers poured in. They arrived in their thousands from the cities up the coast, Nagercoil, Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), Kollam and even further afield, the line of parked coaches stretching from the town centre to our hotel and far beyond.

Two rocky islets lie 500m off the coast. On the western island is an outsize statue of Thiravalluvar a Tamil poet of the 2nd century BC (give or take a hundred years). Unveiled on the first day of the present millennium, it has provoked some controversy; our local guide expressed admiration for Thiravalluvar but said that he, and many others, had preferred the island in its natural rocky state.

The two rocky islets off the coast at Kanyakumari
The Vivekananda Rock Memorial on the eastern island is an irresistible attraction to the idly curious (us) and Hindu pilgrims (everybody else) alike. Our local guide (let’s call him Mr Fussy) turned up bright and early, but even so we reached the dock to find the queue for the ferry was already formidable. We joined the end and Mr Fussy tutted and fretted as he tried to calculate how many boat-loads were ahead of us.

Making a decision he marched us out of the queue, round the barriers and approached the ticket office from the other side. There was no one at the first class ticket window, which was hardly surprising as the fare was 189 Rupees. I was appalled, but as 189Rps is less than £2 maybe I was looking at it through Indian eyes.

Our first class ticket took us straight out onto the quay at the head of a queue of people with second class tickets. We had just missed one boat, but another arrived as the first left and the passengers poured off, dumping their life jackets in a pile on the quay. We and the couple of hundred behind us picked up a jacket each and filed onto the boat. Our first class tickets entitled us to sit by the door, so once everybody had pushed past us and crammed themselves into the interior we were the ones with the cooling sea breeze and the knowledge that, in the event of a disaster, we alone had a sporting chance of survival.

One ferry leaves as the next one arrives, Kanyakumari
The trip was short and disaster free. We were at the front of the queue as the boat docked and the gangplank was lowered, but the urgency of pilgrimage is such that we were beaten to dry land by half a dozen eager men in saffron robes.
We leave the ferry while the next boatload queues to board, Vivekananda Rock, Kanyakumari
The Vivekananda Rock Memorial was built in 1974, though it had been planned since 1962, the centenary of the birth of Narendranath Datta in Calcutta. Datta studied religion and philosophy, both eastern and western, took monastic vows and between 1888 and 1893 travelled the length and breadth of India, reaching Kanyakumari in December 1892. Swimming out to the rock (he could not afford to hire a boat), he meditated for three days and achieved enlightenment.

Now calling himself Swami Vivekananda (The Bliss of Discerning Wisdom) he spent the next ten years on lecture tours around India, Europe, America and Japan meeting many of the great thinkers of the time. In 1902 he died of a brain haemorrhage aged just 39.

Swami Vivekananda, July 1899 (thank you Wikipedia)

Building the memorial was controversial. The largely Christian local fisherman, who called the rock St Xavier’s Island, objected to the idea and planted a large cross. An enquiry was held.

Hindus believe that on this rock the young Devi Kanya (an avatar of Pavarti) waited overnight for the Lord Shiva to come and make her his bride. Unfortunately Bana, the local ruler, had felt free to ‘wreak havoc on all the world’ since Lord Brahma told him he could only die at the hand of an adolescent virgin. Believing that Devi Kanya was that adolescent, the locals plotted to keep her a virgin. Making their cocks crow early they convinced Lord Shiva that he was too late for his wedding and with a heavy heart the wedding procession turned and went home.

The Vivekananda Memorial Hall, Kanyakumari

Devi Kanya was distraught, but survived to become the goddess who removes the rigidity of our minds. In the fullness of time she did kill Bana and, I suppose, can be comforted by the thought that both as Meenakshi (in Madurai) and as Parvati herself (in Kanchipuram) she did marry Lord Shiva. Hinduism is not simple! The story and the status of Swami Vivekananda were enough to persuade the authorities that the memorial should be built.

Us and the statue of Thiravalluvar on the adjacent island, Kanyakumari
Mr Fussy thought it important to photograph us with every available background

Apart from the Memorial Hall and another for meditation there are few facilities, so after a good look round we returned to the mainland.

Facilities, Vivekananda Rock

Kanyakumari and the 2004 Tsunami

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami swept round, and to a certain extent over the rock, but the 500 people marooned were later helicoptered to safety. A 15 minute You Tube video shows the water being sucked back out of the harbour, first leaving the fishing boats high and dry and then the ferries until it is almost possible to walk to Vivekananda Rock. At first the fisherman, who cannot see what is happening, are reluctant to leave their boats, but by the time the water sweeps back they have gone. 250 died in Kanyakumari district; though terrible, that was few compared with the worst hit locations.

Kanyakumari harbour which was emptied of water immediately before the Tsunami struck
The fishermen are largely Christian and their church is on the headland behind.

Suchindram Temple

It was still mid-morning so we had plenty of time to head north to Suchindram where we stopped to see the 17th century temple.

Many religious buildings have a dress code. Usually they demand that women cover more than really necessary citing their own particular idiosyncratic definition of 'modesty'. Conversely the 'sky-clad' Jains and some northern fakirs believe that ‘naked we were born so naked we should approach God’ – though this applies only to men.

Suchindram Temple

Suchindram Temple is not so extreme, but they do believe that men should approach God wearing only a dhoti (though a lunghi or trousers were acceptable) so shirts must come off. Cameras are banned inside the temple so there are no pictures of my pale and flabby frame, a slab of lard floating in a rich brown Tamil gravy.

It is an unusual temple starting with Shiva and finishing with Ganesh (most are the other way round) and has a rare shrine to the trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. To aficionados of Hindu temples these are striking oddities, others may be nonplussed.

Padmanabhapuram Palace

Continuing north we passed through the city of Nagercoil before reaching the barely pronounceable Padmanabhapuram. The Kingdom of Travancore ruled what is now central and southern Kerala and the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu from 1729 to 1949, at first independently but from the early 19th century as a Princely State subject to the British Empire. From 1729 to 1796 Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore and we had come to see the royal palace.

Padmanabhapuram Palace entrance
Most of the current buildings were constructed by the first King of Travancore around 1750 though some are two hundred years older. Although it was Saturday the palace was hosting a number of school parties, some of them waiting in the courtyard. All in immaculate uniform, we remarked, not for the first time, how exceptionally smart groups of Indian schoolchildren always look.

School parties wait in the courtyard, Padmanabhapuram Palace
As we toured the complex, Mr Fussy continually reminded us of the steepness of the stairs or slipperiness of the polished surfaces as though stairs and polish were unknown to us.

Padmanabhapuram Palace
We saw the King’s Council chamber,...

King's Council Chamber, Padmanabhapuram Palace
...the Ceremonial Hall where over a thousand guests could be entertained at once,...

Ceremonial Hall, Padmanabhapuram Palace
If it wasn't for those cross beams it would make a good indoor cricket net
....various bedrooms, and much more besides.

Bedroom, Padmanabhapuram Palace
The most remarkable feature of the palace was the way traditional Keralan architecture (although we were still just in Tamil Nadu) keeps a building cool. The shady corridors with their slatted windows are unbelievably effective.

Shady corridors, Padmanabhapuram Palace
Lunch in Nagercoil

After the palace, Mr Fussy left by bus for his home in Trivandrum and we headed back towards Kanyakumari pausing in Nagercoil for lunch at a restaurant called Red Safron (sic). Thomas spotted it as we drove past and judged it suitable. It was very small; one table downstairs and a larger room upstairs with two tables. The menu was equally limited; we ordered chicken curry, chicken fry and chicken 65 (don’t ask). We over-ordered, but it was cheap and the quality, if not the variety, was surprisingly impressive.

The Ghandi Mandapam, Kanyakumari

Back in Kanyakumari, we let the heat abate before walking to the bazaar to purchase gifts to take home. En route we passed the Gandhi Memorial Mandapam. After his cremation Gandhi’s ashes were divided up and sent to locations throughout India. The country’s southernmost tip was an obvious choice and the Mandapam was built on the shore to house his ashes before scattering them in the sea.

The Gandhi Mandapam, Kanyakumari
Shopping done, we pausing for an iced lemon tea at a snack bar which also offered 'delicious pizzaas, depart from Napoli'.

Iced lemon tea, Kanyakumari
Sunset at Kanyakumari

At dusk Thomas drove us a little way up the Arabian Gulf to Sunset Point. Beyond the car park and Christian cemetery is a statute of ‘Mysterious Mother Mary’; a great place to stand to see the sun set a few minutes after everybody else.

'Mysterious Mother Mayr', Sunset Point, Kanyakumari
Vendors of things nobody really needed lurked along the shore. We bought a map of India, though there is nowhere easier to locate than Kanyakumari in the whole of the subcontinent.

The sun eases its way towards the horizon, Sunset Point, Kanyakumari
We waited as the sun eased itself towards the horizon and then, just like yesterday, watched it disappear into the haze before its journey was complete.

The sun disappears into the haze, Sunset Point, Kanyakumari
Back in the hotel we decided to eschew dinner after our excellent but filling lunch. Instead we reported to the hotel bar for a couple of bottles of Kingfisher beer and a portion of chips - not keeping it real, but comforting none the less.

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