Sunday, January 30, 2005

COVENT GARDEN merry-go-round

The lovely, beautifully lit-up, old-fashioned merry-go-round at Covent Garden square...

Romanian Church

An old Romanian Church on Fleet Street, sandwiched between newer buildings

Wooden hand-painted panels inside the church

This beautiful wooden structure with the hand-painted scenes took up a section of one wall inside the church... absolutely gorgeous, and what colours! My camera wasnt powerful/fundoo enough to get it right...

The Natural History museum

The Natural History Museum... lovely building!

Seen through a mesh of branches

Same building, different view

St.Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral in the afternoon sun, already sinking in the West. Well, it is winter, after all!

St Paul's after sunset

Here, cabbie!

A new "old-fashioned" London cab

The temple that the tsunami didnt hit...

The miracle quotient of the Murugan temple at Tiruchendur must have gone up sky-high after the tsunami declined to ravage it as it ravaged other places up and down the coast. However, when we (me, my mother, brother and sister) went there about 10 days back, there didnt seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Except that the postcard and souvenir touts had some special photos, apparently taken when the sea had receded. (Somebody must have been mighty enterprising - not to mention ready and present with a camera!)

Unfortunately my mother has the photo, so I can only describe it - the sea-bed was clearly revealed, with pebbles and dunes and seaweed and pools of water here and there... but then again, I've not seen the sea there at low tide, so I dunno how authentic the photo was. Still, I guess the evidence of the tsunami NOT hitting the area is right there... after all, the temple is standing in all its glory!

The temple wasnt especially crowded (so my mother says) because I guess it wasnt a specially holy day. But there were enough people to make it stuffy and crowded inside, all the same. Inviting and dark though it looked, the temple wasnt cool in the least... especially considering a lot of it is below sea level. The reason why I dislike going to pilgrimage spots is all the devotees. They're supposedly religious but they behave like animals - actually, worse than animals, in their frenzy to get to the prasadam or the teertham.

The well that's near the temple was a case in point. Our priest had asked us to go there and wash our hands and feet. Seemed a simple enough task. There were two queues leading down to the well - one for men, one for women. So far so good. But both queues ended up at the same spot where people could get at the holy water with the mugs provided there.

All that was required was a splash of water... but no! There were men and women who were actually having a BATH there despite the pressing crowds of people waiting their turn. And these religious bathers would not let anybody get at the mugs, instead calling more family members and friends to join in the frenzy. The scuffling and yelling, not to mention flying elbows and stomping feet was not in the least conducive to a calm, peaceful state of mind, I can tell you. I was in a filthy temper by the time we got out of there - not exactly the best mood prior to a multiple-archanai pooja in the innards of a dark, crowded, HOT temple!

What is it about temples and festivals that turns devotees into mindless maniacs, all intent on grabbing for themselves whatever is on offer - whether it's kumkum/vibhuti, tulasi, or whatever - and never mind the others? Why do they all have to scrabble and fight for everything? I would say "I hate temples" but that isnt true... the smaller ones, which arent famous for any particular thing (other than sculpture or age) have a certain serenity that is very appealing. Put devotees in there, however, and everything is ruined.

Well, enough ranting... at least the scenery on the way from Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur was surprisingly - and very pleasingly - green. It was very refreshing to see plants that werent dusty or drought-stricken and that didnt look straggly and pathetic (what comes to mind at this point are the plants beneath the Cathedral Road flyover, and at the Alwarpet junction... pathetic doesnt begin to describe them, the poor things).

Anyway, we didnt stop anywhere on the way back from Tiruchendur, so all the photos I took were from the moving car. Pretty good, if I say so myself :) They're also in chronological order, so you can scroll through naturally from top to bottom!

Rooftop view of Tiruchendur Murugan temple

Fourth-floor view from Shiva Murugan Lodge of the Tiruchendur temple.

Tiruchendur Murugan Temple entrance

Main entrance to Tiruchendur Murugan temple... doesnt the dark doorway seem like an inviting respite from the sunshine? Only SEEMS, mind you. It was hot and sweaty inside!

Bright and white in the sun

More of the temple on view.

Seashore temple

Temple by the sea... at one point it was so bright that the sea and the horizon blended into one. This was taken before the sun became blinding!

Just the gopuram

The gopuram...funny how you dont really notice electricity cables till they actually show up in the photo!

The entrance is shaped like the gopuram itself!

The temple entrance, much closer-up

Yow, it was really bright in the sunshine!

The covered walkway with the colourful little shops selling cheap trinkets

So much plastic on sale!

Close-up of trinket shops

Phew, it's much more pleasant in the shade

The walkway from the inside... and the lady with the blue bag is my amma!

Hanuman revealing all...

Hanuman rending his chest to show who lives within... just HAD to take this one!

Countryside view

View of a swampy sort of lake on the way to/from Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur

A bit blurred... but still green!

Oh how green it is... what a refreshing sight this was!

I like this photo rather...

Fenced-off greenery

Banananana plantations (forgot where to stop!) ;)

Banana plantations... and more green.

My favourite photo

Is this a rustic scene or what? I'm really rather proud of this photo - especially as it was taken from a moving cab on a bumpy road!

Nice scenery

I liked the palm trees in the middle of the field...

Buncha trees

I liked the natural composition of this group of trees, with the little hut/house hiding behind the clump.

Splash of colour

Liked this for the colour, and the fence...

At Tirunelveli station

The Nellai Express waiting to take us back to Chennai...

Shadow play

Shadows on Tirunelveli Rly Station platform 5... from left, Gopal, Amma and Radha. :)

Cow drinking water

A moo-cow drinking water that's dripping from a leaky tap... too bad you cant see the water, but take it from me, that's what the cow was doing!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Harrods doesnt have it all

Let me start by telling you where NOT to go in London on the first weekday after New Year’s – Harrods, the ultra-chic, ultra-expensive, ultra-sophisticated departmental store. Why? Because that, apparently, is the first day of their “greatest sale” every January, as advertised on practically every London bus. My husband knew why not to go, but he knew equally well that we (him included) WOULD be going to Harrods all the same. It seemed to be the touristy way to start the day and a half that we had before my sis and I flew to Chennai. Kitsch and corny, I know, but it HAD to be done.

Anyway, when we got on the Underground train, it was jam-packed. At the station for Harrods, there was an exit devoted entirely to people going there. The resulting crowd, reminiscent of Singapore’s malls at lunchtime, was even MORE of a mob because every train that stopped there (every 2-3 minutes) disgorged hundreds of passengers, all headed for Harrods. In fact, we were lucky to get into Harrods when we did – by the time we came out, an hour or so later, there were long queues of people at EVERY entrance to the store, waiting to get in! Some of them had Harrods bags, which led me to conclude that they actually WANTED to go back inside into the madness. I guess it takes all kinds…

Harrods the store itself is pretty big – you can apparently get anything from a toothpick to a Hummer, as long as you have the money to pay for it. But that day, honestly, it didn’t look like anything more than the village rummage or jumble sale, although on a rather larger scale. There were signs everywhere, people milling around grabbing at shirts and trousers and throwing the wrong sizes back higgledy-piggledy. Garments were piled up on tables, hanging from temporary movable racks, all mixed up, lying on the floor. Shoes were not in their right size racks and many of them were missing partners. I wanted very much to check out the “luxury bathrooms”, but on seeing the constant lines of women waiting to go in, I decided not to. It might not have smelt luxurious by then!

On all the floors, there were plenty of store employees hanging around to provide help – but more likely to make sure that not too many light-fingered shoppers got away with their kleptomaniac instinct. I came to that conclusion because I got directed from floor to floor when I asked for information about where I could buy ponchos. None of the store employees I asked had the exact information, but all of them had plenty of directions to give. None of which, by the way, led to the poncho section.

I had to finally accept that there were NO ponchos to be had for love or money at Harrods. So much for the UK’s most famous snob-value store…
I can say it now, and with perfect honesty: I went to Harrods and they didn’t have what I was looking for! How many celebrities can say THAT?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Covent Garden, paradise of kitsch

My newest favourite area in London is Covent Garden. I’ve been to London a few times, but because of circumstances (mostly visitors), I ended up seeing the same tourist spots every time – the Tower, the London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s, St Paul’s, etc. Not that these were or are boring or unimpressive even on the umpteenth viewing – far from it. I mean, listening to an organ recital at St Paul’s is wonderful. The acoustics of the great hall, the sheer volume of sound that is generated in the massive organ pipes is awesome. It sent shivers down my spine. How much more impressive it would have been a couple of hundred years ago, that clarity and strength of sound, without any of the high-tech electronics that goes into public sound systems today.

But as always, I digress. I was going to write about Covent Garden, and that is what I shall do now. A little (VERY little!) history first. The Covent Garden area is famous for theatre, the oldest one being the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (and that about exhausts what I remember from BA Eng Lit classes oh so long ago!). The square itself used to be the country’s biggest fruit and veg market, and it (the market) was relocated only in 1973. The main building in the piazza (Italian for square, and it’s not an insulting term either! *wink*) was built in 1830 by Charles Fowler, but the high glass roof was erected in the 1870s.

My very first glimpse of the modern version of Covent Garden was electric… there are all kinds of high-street shops on the periphery of the square, all having new year’s sales at this time of year and therefore all teeming with shoppers carrying bulging multi-coloured bags. That wasn’t what took my attention, though. What attracted me like a magnet were the dozens of madly colourful little stalls selling all kinds of antiques, junk, old books and magazines, hand-made jewellery, t-shirts, scarves, and all kinds of odds and ends. And the best part was that most of the things were dirt-cheap (in UK terms, that is).

There were items from Victorian times, quite likely from the attics of old houses and homes – tiny, beautifully patterned miniature tea-sets in delicate china, little china figurines of crinolined and crimped girls and women in flowing ribboned bonnets, men with big sideburns wearing top hats and tails, adorable little dogs and foxes and hedgehogs and birds… but I must say my favourites were the little china teacups and saucers. Adorable isn’t a good enough term for them! Never have Enid Blyton’s descriptions of fairy tea parties come so close to looking like being based on reality…

There are other attractions as well – buskers, street performers, men (mostly) covered with silver paint, pretending to be statues or robots or royalty, standing absolutely still on their pedestals until someone throws them a coin. Then they suddenly come to life in a most realistic manner (considering that they’re already alive!), sometimes startling little kids. I could have watched them all day.

There was also a beautiful, wildly colourful, old-fashioned merry-go-round with horses and ponies on poles that went up and down gently to the accompaniment of old-fashioned music. Modern amusement park rides are thrilling and I mostly prefer them, but this working relic of a gentler, less speed-fixated age was definitely something to experience, allright. We didn’t have the time to go on it because of the crowds. Also, I suspect it would not have been very edifying to watch two adults elbow little kids out of the way to get onto a mechanical horse! So we stayed as admiring spectators.

And then, as the sun went down, we made our reluctant way back to the Underground, with our brains imprinted with the throbbing images of colour, life and liveliness… and with our feet imprinted with the throbbing pain of a day spent walking over relentlessly hard cobbles and tarmac. It was worth every cobble and every throb.