On the rails through Tamil Nadu

After the exhausting five-day safari in Tanzania, Stephanie and I decided we needed less travel in India, so settled on a three-day group trip from Chennai to the south.

The 20th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It was a small party of 19, with about half faculty or adult passengers. We boarded the night train at one of the city’s two railroad stations, Chennai-Egmore, built by the British in grand Victorian style.  In most Indian cities, the station is the center of activity, crowded with passengers, freight and mail, the platforms lined with small restaurants (vegetarian and non-vegetarian), stalls selling soda and water (no alcohol allowed on Indian trains), cashews, and chips made from bananas and tapioca. The railroad system seems to reflect India’s complex society: there are waiting rooms for each travel class, porters with red cloth headbands carrying luggage on their heads, beggars and businessmen, and a labyrinthine bureaucracy for buying tickets and making reservations. With 1.7 million workers, Indian Railways is the largest single employer in the country. Our first-class sleepers were a bit cramped, but at least the air-conditioning worked, and some of us snatched a few hours’ sleep. 

At 6:00 a.m., the station at Madurai was busy as we dragged our overnight bags to the bus. Madurai is one of the seven sacred cities of India, and we spent the morning touring the huge Hindu temple of Sri Meenakshi with its 12 towers of brightly colored statues, hall of 1,000 pillars and central pool. Temples in India are—as much as mosques and perhaps more than churches—social centers, so the place was crowded with people, some of them worshipping, others begging, some just hanging out.

India (41).jpg

It is also a commercial center with stalls selling tourist trinkets—beads, wooden elephants, key rings and the like—along with religious objects. Almost every temple has a resident elephant, the physical embodiment of the god, Ganesh. The one at Sri Meenakshi will bless you and give you a nice wet back rub with its trunk for 20 rupees (about 40 cents). 

India (37).jpg

After lunch, we set off towards the Western Ghats, the mountain chain that straddles the states of Tamil Nadu in the southeast and Kerala in the southwest. The road ran through villages with coconut trees and rice paddies, giving us our first glimpses of rural south India. The road was narrow, but crowded with buses, cars, trucks, people walking and cycling, and carts pulled by oxen. Many oxen sported brightly colored horns (blue, green or a rather stylish red, black and white tricolor design). Apparently, they’d been dressed up for a recent harvest festival. Our guide told us that politicians, appealing to illiterate voters, sometimes pay farmers to paint the horns in the party colors—political communication in its most basic form.

Climbing through the jungle on narrow, twisting roads, we reached the resort town of Thekkady. It is about 4,000 feet above sea level, cool and pleasant—a welcome change from the sweltering heat of the lowlands. Next morning, we took a two-hour boat ride on Lake Periyar, an artificial lake formed by a dam. Today, it’s a wildlife sanctuary, with a landscape rather like the Everglades; we passed dead trees still standing 20 years after being submerged.

India (70).jpg

We saw gray herons, bright green kingfishers, snake birds, cormorants, egrets, otters, wild boar, bison and elephants; the most exciting scene was when a mother elephant and her baby swam across the lake about 50 yards in front of the boat. We did not see tigers, which still live in this area of the highlands. The guide told us that one had been seen in late January near a lodge in the preserve, but tigers are reclusive, and unlike the lions in Tanzania don’t usually show up for the tourists. 

Next week: On the canals of Kerala