Today was our final day in the South and since we were flying out from Chennai this evening diving was off the cards. PADI recommends a 24 hour window between your final dive and flying so Halle and I had opted for a roadtrip to one of the temple towns that make up Tamil Nadu state. We had to be in Chennai for 5.45 in time for our flight so our decision came down to 2 places, Tiruvannamalai or Mahabalipuram. Both were within driving distance but after consulting the ever handy Lonely Planet we opted for Tiruvannamalai, which was a must see apparently. We had organised a driver for the day through a local travel agent in Pondicherry. This was something I had done a lot on my first trip to India and for the bargain price of £17.50 each we had a private A/C car to drive us to the temple town and then back to the airport.
Finally we were in charge over timings we asked to be picked up at 8a.m. so we could sleep in until 7, what a luxury! It was very sad to leave La Maison Radha, Ravi and Sumadee the owners had been so welcoming and the guesthouse itself is just gorgeous, one of the nicest places I have ever stayed in India! Sumadee pinned some jasmine in our hair and gave us a powdered bindi as a going away present, so sweet! We were pretty hungry since we hadn’t had our usual dive school breakfast so made our way to Café des Arts to pick up some breakfast for the road, unfortunately it was closed and this was our first ‘bad omen’ of the day. The driver suggested trying the Auroville Bakery which was on the way so we headed there and picked some amazing French pastries which were so much better than the patries of Baker Street. Melt in the mouth!
It was a 2 and a half hour drive to Tiruvannamalai and so we arrived in pretty good time. It was so hot, and this was supposed to be on a high plateau so a little cooler, so wrong. The first thing we immediately noticed as we approached the Annamalaiyar temple was it appeared to be under construction. This was pretty disappointing and had we known in advance we probably wouldn’t have made the journey but trying to remain positive we headed to the entrance. However, what we quickly discovered was that while there are 4 ‘entrances’ only one was in operation, which we worked out by circumnavigating the entire temple complex quite a feat with it being one of the largest in India at 10 hectares! We finally found the entrance and luckily there was no queue so made our way to the entrance security before being informed in a not so polite manner that women must be covered below the knees. I felt pretty stupid, I had shorts on and now we had to walk all the way back to the car so I could put a dress on. I should have known better but what was even more frustrating was the drivers throwaway comment when he seen me rifling through my bag, “oh, you can’t wear shorts in this one”, no shit Sherlock! A heads up would have been nice.
I changed in the back of the taxi, much to the delight of the local Sadhu’s, thankfully Halle managed to preserve most of my modesty. We then got the driver to drive us back round to the actual entrance where, surprise surprise, the queue had now grown exponentially in size. We joined the queue in the hot sun and waited for over 30 minutes to get inside, just our luck. The temple is linked to the full moon and we had managed to visit on the busiest day of the month, full moon. On this day pilgrims traverse the circumference of the nearby Annamalai Hill (usually barefoot) before making their way to the temple to pray to Shiva – the god this temple is dedicated too. What makes the temple particularly unique is it is associated with one of the five elements – fire and so during the full moon of Nov/Dec locals light a fire atop Annamalai Hill to depict Shiva of fire joining the sky.
The complex is made up of lots of different temple sections and so is pretty confusing to navigate and understand, particularly so during the construction phase. In hindsight, we should probably have paid a bit extra for a guide but all of the drivers I have ever had in the north of India have been quite helpful so I had assumed ours might have given us some information about the temple and its significance etc. Most tourist temples also have guides which you can hire outside but we were clearly the only foreign tourists there and so the need for guides is not required by the devout pilgrims. We entered one of the smaller shrines and had a look around. Even through the construction bamboo you could see the intricate carvings and how detailed each part of the temple was. We also saw a lot of cows (particularly one very extravagant gold one) which is to symbolise Nandi the mount of Shiva and his and Parvati’s protector. Unfortunately, the 16 pillared hall of life was not open due to the construction so we got in line for the main Shrine. The queue was enormous and in 30 minutes we still weren’t near the front of the queue. At this point, especially considering our ill-fated luck of the day, we decided to leave the queue and head back to the car. Our driver had warned us that it would be a 4 and a half to 5 hour drive back to Chennai airport and if we hit Chennai around 5 then we could get caught in bad traffic. It was sad to leave without seeing a lot of the significant parts of the complex but since we had no idea what each of the parts were actually about anyway I don’t think seeing it would have made too much of a difference. Main tips, go after the construction is finished and definitely hire a guide!
We popped into the local post office before heading out to the airport. I used the time to write, read and most importantly nap. We were feeling particularly peckish around 3 and so decided to stop by one of the roadside hotels and restaurants. We were starving when we arrived and so I decided to treat myself with one of my favourites, chilli paneer! It was very tasty and feeling very full we did the last section of our journey to Chennai Airport. The attitude of our driver had been particularly crap, so we were glad to leave him and the bad energy of the day behind for the start of our Northern adventure. We had a nice iced coffee at Café Coffee Day, an Indian institution, before boarding our flight and flying off to Delhi.
On my previous 2 trips to India, both happily much longer than this one, I had made a lot of friends with people from Delhi, having been based there for a lot of the trips. One of my friends Eshaan had kindly agreed to host Halle and I for the night and so on arrival we messaged Tarun, our diving buddy from Pondicherry who arranged for an uber to take us to Eshaan’s. What Eshaan had forgot to mention was that India was playing cricket on the night we were arriving and so at 11.45 we called him to confirm the address and instead ended up heading over to a bar to meet him and his friends. This was not really what we had planned but our options were pretty limited at this time and as with everything in India, you just roll with it. We made it back an hour or so later and managed to crash out, exhausted and excited for some Holi madness the next day.