a trip to fort gingee, including the attack of the annoying younger sibling

(with a few apologies to will cuppy:)

this sunday, i woke up at the painful hour of 4 am to travel with the photographic society of madras to fort gingee, 160 km south of chennai. it was an impregnable fortress complex consisting of three forts atop individual hills. the british referred to it as the “troy of the east.” and where is troy today?

the ride took nearly three hours, including a stop for breakfast, so it was already getting hot by the time we started our 90-minute climb. there are a number of buildings at the base of the fort, including granaries, a gymnasium, stables, and a marriage hall; then one passes through a thick wall, and begins climbing to the top. the buildings at the top are separated from the path by a 10-yard wide, 20-yard deep chasm. wikipedia notes “It was thus an impressive sight [sic] where the defender could seal himself indefinitely.”* naturally, the buildings are in ruins today, but it was still a good opportunity to take some photos, so let’s get to it, shall we?

rajagiri fort – “the king’s fort” – and the tower of the marriage hall; a walkway in the marriage hall; the granary ceiling.
the fortress wall; the guard house after the drawbridge; a vishnu temple. (note the graffiti).
more ruins, and views from the top. the hill in the distance is the krishnagiri fort.

on the way down, we came across the monkeys, who had found a rubik’s cube at one point. ownership of the cube was still an issue.

the monkeys come to the rubik’s cube. note the piece on the ledge. the monkeys consider this. the older monkey investigates the piece.
can i eat it?  the monkey determines that, indeed, he cannot eat it … … and he goes for the rest of the cube, which immediately attracts the younger sibling’s interest.
can i play? hell, no.

*throughout history, “indefinitely” in these situations has meant “until the food ran out.” 

when in tirupati (part 2) …


the truth is, i didn’t look that much different after the shave. (photos courtesy of james)

the following day, we procured a car at our hotel to take us to the sri venkateswara temple, on the hilltop village of tirumala. the first order of business was to have our heads shaved, or “tonsured” as they call it. because so many pilgrims come to tirumala every day, there are a number of haircutting halls at which you can have your head shaved for 10 rupees.  at each one where we stopped, however, our driver told us it would be a 2-hour wait, until he found someone who would take us immediately, for 200 rupees each. james and i considered our situation; we could have waited the two hours, if that’s what it really would have taken, but we knew it was more likely that our driver was simply ripping us off; and he had conveniently poor english comprehension skills when we tried to argue this point with him.  in the end, we decided it wasn’t worth the time and aggravation, so we took care of business and  then went to a more crowded hall to photograph other people being shaved.

after this, we joined the “special” line to see the god at the temple. most pilgrims will wait 8-10 hours in line for a two-second glance at the god, but visitors who are willing to pay 300 rupees can get into the special line that takes only 4-5 hours. however, we were there on republic day, a national holiday, so even the expedited line was estimated to take 6-8 hours. we moved 20 feet in one hour, so we gave up and took some more photos around the temple before heading back to town. i wish i could say i took some amazing photos here, but i think i was too busy rubbing my newly-shorn head to really concentrate on my camera. when i went shooting back at the sri govindarajaswami temple that afternoon, however, i took my hat off; and after that, i didn’t have to lift my camera, because the indians wanted to take their pictures with me.

when in tirupati (part 1) …

my friend james and i decided to travel to tirupati, in andhra pradesh, to visit the sri venkateswara temple, which is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in india. as those of you who have seen chris rock’s movie good hair may remember, india exports tons of human hair to the west for hair extensions; and a lot of that hair is collected at the sri venkateswara temple, where the pilgrims shave their heads out of humility before they visit the god.  the hair gets bought up by exporters, and they sort it, wash it, and prepare it for sale.  this is a big business; so james and i decided, what the hell, let’s do it too.

the day we arrived in tirupati, we walked around the town and took some shots outside the sri govindarajaswami temple (sort of as a warm-up), noticing the numbers of men, women and children with tonsured heads; then we went down to the train station, to watch the pilgrims come and go, and to get more photos.

a store selling flower wreaths and other religious goods outside sri govindarajaswami temple; a woman selling human hair; and families of pilgrims who have donated their their hair (i didn’t ask how mom got out of shaving her head in the second group).
pilgrims coming and going.

next: they do it too.

getting home

an abandoned temple chariot (used for carrying statues of the gods) by the side of the road in pudukottai; detail. and no, i don’t know why this is sitting on the side of the road, but it obviously had been there for a while.

the final post of the jallikattu series: i started out on wednesday morning with the decision to take the state highways, rather than the national highway, back to chennai; taking these roads, i would see the smaller towns and villages of the region. the first stop was thirupattur, where i’d seen the m.g.r. posters the day before.  there was a restaurant in town that, according to my companions of the previous days, served the best roti and mutton (goat) stew in the area. when i lived albania, anytime i drove south with the mapo team, we would stop in lezhë to eat spinach pies (byrek) at a roadside stand where all the truckers ate, so i looked forward to having a similar gastronomical adventure in tamil nadu.

the food did not disappoint; even though the chunks of meat in my bowl were mostly kidney, the stew was rich and savory, and the roti were warm and flaky. i debated having a second bowl, but i wanted to get on the road, so i paid my bill and headed back to where i’d parked. as soon as i got to the car, however, i felt everything in my stomach and intestines take a two-inch shift south. after a second of panic, i coolly began calculating exactly how far i might be able to drive, and what kind of bush or ditch i would need to find when i finally had to pull over.

fortunately, everything found a new sense of equilibrium after a few minutes, so i was able to proceed confidently. the first significant town i found was pudukottai, which had been the capital of a princely state of the same name from the 1600’s until independence.  it was pretty sleepy when i drove through, and the temple was closed for lunch, so, after taking a few snaps of the town, i drove on. i considered stopping at thanjavur, which i’d visited once before (and i just now realize that i never posted any of those photos – those will come soon), but decided it would be better just to get onto the national highway, as i was getting tired. i headed in the direction shown on my smartphone’s gps and within half an hour was completely lost. this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because i soon drove into thiruvaiyaru.

thiruvaiyaru is another quiet town, but – as i subsequently found out – it is nonetheless very important culturally. there is an ancient shiva temple there (which i didn’t know to look for) and, according to wikipedia, it’s as holy a city as varanasi, and pilgrims cleanse their sins by bathing in the river.  (there were no pilgrims in town when i was there, and all i saw by the river was people washing their clothes.) the city was also the home of thyagaraja, one of the three major composers of carnatic music, and there is a festival there every january.  i’ll have to go next year.

thiruvaiyaru appears to be a very quiet place.

unlike the larger cities i’d visited, very few people approached me or mugged for the camera. nonetheless, some local women kindly opened a small temple on a side street as i was passing by, so i could look inside, and i was very happy just to wander the few side streets and market adjacent to the river without keeping an eye on the time. finally, i noticed it was after 3.30 pm; i’d been on the road since 8.30 am and i knew i still had far to go, so i got back in the car. i checked the gps, and saw that by staying on the state highways and traveling at the recommended 60 kilometers per hour (40 mph), chennai was five hours away. the entry to the national highway was so far to the southeast that it made no sense to backtrack; it would be more sensible to stay on the local roads until i reached the outskirts of chennai. off i went.

what i hadn’t counted on, however, was that it is impossible to go 60 kph on these two-lane (one in each direction) state highways: between the potholes, the bottlenecks in the villages, the construction, and the buses – both those in front of you and the ones that force you off the road so they can move into your lane to pass on a blind curve – i was often crawling at 20 kph. every 40 minutes or so, i checked the gps to make sure i was still on the right road, and every time, it said that chennai was 5 hours away. this wasn’t looking good.

by around 6.30 pm, it was pitch dark. the blackness was interrupted only by the glare of oncoming headlights, which left me temporarily blind. i was confident enough of my reflexes and my nerves that i wasn’t worried about ending up in some awful accident, but the fact that i had to keep reminding myself that i was this confident meant that the threat of becoming an object-lesson in recklessness was never too far from my mind. after an hour of this, and of failing to find anything i recognized as a hotel, i stopped in vadalur, a large town at the intersection of two state highways. the only hotel sign i saw was attached to a building that was still under construction, so i ate dinner and turned east toward pondicherry.

to get from from vadalur to pondicherry, you have to take state highway 10 through cuddilore.  cuddilore was the town where cyclone thane made landfall three weeks before, and the darkened road was full of obstacles – downed tree branches, pedestrians in low-visibility clothing, and motorbikes with burned out taillights – that made the drive a particular study in concentration.  i contemplated getting out to take a photograph, but without my headlights on, the image would have looked something like this:

this wasn't actually taken in cuddilore, but it's not like you could tell.

after a few miles of this, a “road closed” sign appeared out of the darkness. i wasn’t alone on the highway at this point, and we all saw two cars coming out from beyond the sign.  the more sensible drivers turned off to the right toward who knows where, but the rest of us figured, “how bad can it be if these guys made it through?” and, edging around the sign, soldiered ahead. for the first few miles, the road was no better or worse than it had been, but then the road stopped completely, and we were confronted with a single rutted dirt path twisting its way through a site full of concrete pylons and abandoned construction equipment. “the only way out is through,” i decided. amazingly, the figo didn’t scrape bottom even once.

after that, the road became progressively easier. i come back out onto the main road and merrily dodged oncoming buses until i got into pondicherry and found a hotel for the night. and the next day’s drive back to chennai was a piece of cake.


the second half of the day

a parade of brightly decorated bullock carts rolls through the village for the pongal festival

after a less-than-brilliant afternoon of shooting the jallikattu, we drove into a chettinar village to see a pongal festival. the chettinars are a community of traders who rose to prominence during the 19th century, building businesses and trading overseas. they built splendid houses for themselves, but many of the wealthy chettinars now live in the major cities or overseas, returning to their villages only for special occasions.  pongal is the harvest festival, and in a typical celebration, people cook a rice porridge of the same name. the community pongal festival is a great excuse for a get-together (and an opportunity for the single young men and women to size each other up).

the best way to describe the festival is “smoky.” pongal is cooked over charcoal flames encased in what look like old coffee cans, and there were well over 100 fires lit when we arrived. it’s considered good fortune when the pongal begins to boil up and over the rim of the pot, so i included a shot of that below. almost all of the participants were women, either young or old; i saw only one man cooking, and he was well past the marrying age. we walked up and down, taking shots until nightfall.


i’ve made yet another formatting change to the blog to make it much easier to read. i still have to figure out some of the css coding, so the colors and fonts aren’t exactly correct yet. in the meantime …

i recently purchased a 1960s-era diana camera. this is going to be fun.