13. On to Thanjavur

We are at Thanjavur after a 350km bus ride yesterday, punctuated by a couple of temple visits and lunch. It was a long day so please forgive me for not posting for you last night.

The bus is a 32-seater with two seats each and more. I’m glad we can spread out. I sit up the back with John, but we are over the back wheels and every time the driver goes over a bump, we bounce into the air.

If you’ve been in India you know how crazy the roads are. The drivers are very skilful. We are on smaller roads, and it’s head-on crash stuff until the last moment. There is a kaleidoscope of constant chaotic activity. Women and men and families on foot, on bicycles and motorbikes, cars, trucks, bullock drays, tuk tuks and cars. And vehicles I don't even know how to describe. This is an Ambassador which was manufactured in India until production stopped a couple of years ago. They are used as taxis. This one is a little the worse for wear.

While we are stopped at a local shrine this woman goes by, barefoot pedalling in her gorgeous red sari.

We see a couple of men plastering on the first floor of a building. The younger man looks across at me and smiles. He tries to make a woman come into view but she refuses. He laughs.

We are behind a school bus. Every girl has white ribboned pigtails. I took this photo through the front windscreen of the bus. I'm so sorry the reflections stop it from looking as wonderful as it actually was.

How do they not get their saris and robes caught in the spokes?

I love these people. They are so ready to smile.

We cross a wide river. Wherever there is water, people are washing.

He is taking a photo of me taking a photo of him.

Used fertiliser bags being recycled.

Someone is living in this dilapidated palm tree frond house.

Huge drays full of straw left over I presume from the rice harvest which is going on. It's impossible to see the vehicle.

The ubiquitous palm tree.

Rice has been spread out to dry by the side of the road. Bullocks pull carts, whole families pile precariously on one motorbike, people talk on mobile phones as they are riding. Grannies ride side saddle.

Women walk along the side of the road carrying massive loads on their heads. Huge lorries brush past us with scarcely an inch to spare, pedestrians stroll across to the sound of our driver’s warning honks. When there is a stretch of straight road, we speed along, swerving to miss obstacles, playing chicken with other vehicles which come straight at us. There are many motorcycles. I have every confidence in our driver.

I put on the lap seatbelt a few days ago, unlike most of our group who don’t bother. I admire their relaxed attitude. It may offer some protection, but it leaves a big dirty mark right across my lap. Thanks to my mate Cally, I now know that baby wipes take out stains, and I am armed with them on this trip. The mark comes out. So now when I use seat belt, I run a dry tissue up and down it first.

We cross over a huge river plain where fresh water crocodiles are sun baking. We really are in the tropics! They are too far away for me to photograph. Fortunately they’re vegetarian like the rest of India.

We stop for lunch at the Paradise Ayurvedic Resort in an old European style home. It reminds me of the Most Exotic Marigold Hotel. We cross a concrete Monet-style bridge over bare dirt to a foyer with a pretty flower bowl.

At lunch I ask for a cushion for the hard chair and am eventually brought what looks like someone’s used pillow. I’m not complaining. There are geese wandering through the grounds two by two like nuns, goats foraging, a woman is digging weeds out of grass one by one. I wonder if it might take her a year or two to finish. There is rarely order in gardens, or streets. Temples and hotels are the exception. The garden here is laid out higgledy piggledy with paths and grass and dirt and hoses and rubbish and boggy patches and dusty paths and a row of palm trees.

Lunch is delicious, soups, red and yellow curries of chicken and lamb and beef, 3 or 4 different types of rice, boiled vegetables, deep-fried vegetables, grilled cauliflower which tastes of a wonderful curry flavour. I discover that I enjoy ochra which I have never eaten before. I suspect it’s the wonderful curry sauce it’s in. Washed down with the usual big glass tankard of beer we accept each lunchtime. Like most Asian beers, Indian beer is very similar to ours, and is served cold. On occasions it’s been chilled. When I go to the loo, surprisingly there is a beautiful fragrance in the air.

We stop at two temples during the day, but the most important one we see is the Brihadishwara Temple. The dynasty whose architecture and temples we see is the Chola. Thanjavur was its capital. It reached its height from the 10th to the 14th centuries, and conquered as far as the Ganges in the north, Sri Lanka, and some parts of the Malayan archipelago.

Temples big and small. Always with the stone carvings depicting the adventures of Shiva, Parvati and the other gods. Always with the inner sanctum. Our English guide Sue has such a vast knowledge of her subject. At each temple she tells us more about the Hindu religion and the adventures of the gods. She is an excellent guide.

Asoka stayed back at Chennai and now we have a new local guide called Ram. Random Access Memory he jokes. Each time we get out of the bus, he says to me 'I'm missing you'. I have no idea what that means. He makes me laugh. I find him nearly impossible to understand when he's giving us historical information. This is he.

Ram says he has an idea. He puts me in place and takes this photo. He's very proud of the result. Note the Goan school hat. OFF the head.

You asked to see John in his snazzy hat. He says I can post this one of him sitting with George. I'm doing it before he can change his mind.

This flower is from the Nagalingam tree (couroupita guianensis) . The tree is often planted in the gardens of temples. Indians say it's Shiva's flower because the opening bud looks like a cross between a cobra and a shivalinga. This flower is high above our heads. Isn't it pretty?

There are so many intricate carvings on the temples. The women and men wear jewellery, with sophisticated hairdos, fine diaphanous pants. Sometimes long, sometimes three-quarter length. Anklets. Toe rings. See how Parvati here wears beautiful jewellery, breast bands and sits under an umbrella.

Every temple has temple guards with fang teeth.

This is Shiva with his foot squashing the demon of ignorance. Underneath, there is a very thin woman on the left. It all has significance. I have heard so much I find it hard to remember all the stories.

Worshippers enjoy the lawns around the temples. I enjoy engaging with them. Ram has taught me to say 'wannakum' before I say anything else. Then I ask if I may take their photo. Afterwards I say nanrei (nan-dray). Often though, girls and boys present themselves asking for their photos to be taken. I'm glad they do.

As I walk past a mother and her daughter below, the girl is crying. I ask why. Her mother explains that she wants to sing to us. I listen to her song and take a video of it. A long song in English. I am charmed. Unfortunately it would take too long to upload it here.

These girls thought of the scarf display themselves.

Isn't she divine?

He's deep in thought.

A temple worker watering the lawn. There's oodles of water available in Tamil Nadu.

This man is from Bangalore. I show him this photo and he is very pleased with it. It took him 8 hours by bus to get here, to worship at this temple.

Such pretty colours.

Indian girls often wear lovely jewellery with their silk saris.

I wonder if the ankle bells are so that they can keep track of him.

Ram tells me that the odd bottles at the front contain home-made sugar syrup. You buy it and add lime juice for a refreshing drink. Hygienic? Maybe not.

We go to the Thanjavur museum where they keep amazing bronzes depicting the gods. I love the one of Shiva and Parvati where he has many cobras wound around his head. They are beautifully made with amazing details.

Doesn't Shiva have a kindly face here?

Sue tells us a story about this god. When he was a boy, he was the son of a cow herder. It was his job to stay with the cows as they grazed. He was a passionate devotee of Shiva, making mud lingas in the paddock. He neglected the cows. His father came to chastise him, and the boy threw his stick at his father. Shiva saw this happen and was angry at the father, because he liked the fact that they boy loved him so much. He turned the thrown stick into a spear which killed the father. I'm struggling to find a moral here!

I love the ceilings at the museum.

And the walls...

This is a clever carving in one of the temples. It's both a bull with his head lifted upwards (left) or if you look again on the right, it's an elephant.

This ceiling is hidden in a dark arched tunnel entrance to the museum.

We are staying at a hotel on the river at Thanjavur. We arrive as sun sets. Dawn is just as beautiful with mist rising off the water. Tomorrow we leave for Madurai. Until then, buddies, its kutnait.