Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The entire purpose of this trip was to come to Tiruvannamalai. There’s a number of reasons for coming here but I’m not going to go into all that right now as my first full day was all about checking out the town.
Tiruvannamalai is a very poor town, in fact, way, way poorer than I was expecting and I was expecting poor in the first place. Check out the first few photos below and you will start to get a bit of an image of how poor I am talking here. One thing I haven’t come across to this degree is not being able to tell the difference between the beggars and, well the poor people, who also tend to beg, just in a different way. Then there are all the Babas, or Holy Men, Wandering Swamis or as I am beginning to see them, “Homeless Men in Orange clothing doing their best to cash in”. They are the ones dressed in orange and seem to wander around doing their fair share of begging and not much of the being holy. A true Wandering Swami has only his simple clothing, a staff and his bowl, he also doesn’t ask for anything, simply allows people to give as they will, quite different to this lot. So it’s a town full of people who clearly see the visiting Westerner as someone who is filthy stinking rich and should pay accordingly.
I tell you all this because in my experience in India you need to have a bit of a plan, especially if you are in one place for any length of time. If you don’t have a plan you will become easy pickings for the myriad opportunists who want you cash. My plan was to walk into town, a distance of 7km. It’s interesting to hear the staff here at the hotel suggest that it’s impossible to walk that far, but then they earn commission for organizing an auto-rickshaw for you. See, everybody is in on it here, in fact, India is so unbelievably corrupt from top to bottom, probably one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and on the basis of that you start to understand why everybody wants to get paid. (while I am on that subject, check out my “Only in India” stories I am about to post, especially the one about my arrival at the hotel)
The going rate, I have been told, for an auto-rickshaw into town is100 rupees. So if you have it in your mind that that’s the rate then from the start that’s what you pay, it’s a rort. It’s a small town and not so many auto-rickshaws (from now on will be known by me as rick-astleys) which means that by the end of the day quite a few of them seemed to already know me, as they had stopped to offer me a ride, of course they all look the same to me **insert Southpark face right here**. They would all say the same thing, 100 rupees, I would give them my usual face and sound, which is a sort of an “aurrhhh”, accompanied by a single chopping action with the hand indicating that I’m disgusted and the conversation is over. After a couple of hours I had the price down to 80 rupees and I was obviously getting a few of the same guys as they seemed to know me already, wanting to adopt me as “their Westerner”. Nearer the end of the day they were asking me how much I wanted to pay so we are already starting to get somewhere. I figure there are heaps of rides on a rick-astley for 50 rupees, none at all for 100. Seeing as I am here for close to six weeks I need to sort this one out quickly. I really don’t mind the walking, probably about 20km today over about 7 hours with breaks in between resting in the Ramana Ashramam (yes, that’s Ashramam, they like to add an extra “am” onto certain words here)
The beggars are a different matter and there are heaps of them everywhere. There is a whole other thing going on in place like this, unlike the Slumdog Millionaire version whereby they beg in gangs, there are certain groups of people here in real need, maybe more about that later. The men in orange make great photos so I am happy to pay the “model” a little at times, though you could so easily be paying out the cash all day long. The children here seem to get into begging right outside their very humble homes. It’s actually very off-putting and gets a pretty short response. First they ask for a photo (which so many people do anyway) but when that’s not happening they ask for a pen, then a sweet, then a rupee. They follow you down the road and you have to get quite short with them or they start pawing at you, and that is the worst.
All in all Tiruvannamalai would seem to be a very run down, poverty stricken type place but interestingly enough today I didn’t once smell that awful small of piss drying in the sun or see one little pile of shit. The only shit smell is that of the cows, which are everywhere here, and I have no problem with that smell at all. The town is built around one side of the hill Arunachala, the sacred hill. I’m not exactly sure what makes a hill sacred but it’s been that way for several thousand years. There are hills everywhere here, which I found surprising, but something makes Arunachala extra special. A temple, I understand to be India’s largest, is here along with the ashram of the great saint, Sri Ramana Maharshi who lived there until his death in 1950. I visited the Ashram twice today, staying for quite a while both times, sitting in different places absorbing the peaceful atmosphere. Today was a holiday known as Pongal so the Ashram was a bit crowded and a bit noisy so not as peaceful as might be expected. Indian people seem to let their kids run around crazy making as much noise as they want, I noticed that in the hotels as well. They never seem to go to bed either, up at all hours running up and down the hallways in hotels screaming and carrying on, the children at the ashram were just the same.
I’m not really an ashram kind of guy, and there are heaps of things on all day long from about 4.00am to 9.00pm every day, but I can see it will be something of a refuge from the dust and dirt of the town and the mid day heat so will probably spend quite a bit of time there. It’s quite a big place so plenty of quiet areas you can hide yourself away. More about the Ashram in later posts.
Outside nearly every single house, shack or business there are these chalk-like drawings of various quality. Actually I believe they are done in coloured flour or something , will investigate more.
Love this guy, may adopt him for the time I'm here. Tend to have favourites and probably like this guy because of his dog. See how everything, including the dog, is so neatly ordered.