HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trichy: Boredom sets in

On to Trichy!
After two days in Madurai, I was more than ready to get out of the city. So, I took another train to Tiruchirappalli, whose monstrous name is almost always shortened to just Trichy. Located right in the center of Tamil Nadu, Trichy is, like Madurai, another chaotic, messy city, although it is home to two major temples, not just one. My stay here was no more pleasant than my time in Madurai.

I exited the train station into the blazing heat and was promptly ripped off by an auto driver, before I checked into a hotel, where my room was directly next to a construction site and across the street from the city's insane central bus station. My Ipod got a workout trying to drown out the endless blares of air horns and screeching brakes.

I headed straight out to the Rock Fort, which towers 83 meters (270 feet) over the city. Two small temples are perched on the rock outcrop, and a climb up 437 steps rewards you with commanding views over Trichy and the Cauvery River, which was nearly empty, since it was the middle of Tamil Nadu's dry season. (The Western Ghats shield the state from Kerala's monsoon, so Trichy was staggeringly hot. The heat literally took your breath away when you walked outside.) Although the views were great, I couldn't really enjoy them for very long. Shoes are not allowed within temple grounds, so I had to go barefoot over the sun-drenched stone, and I was only able to withstand it for a few minutes.
Vinayaka Temple, at the summit of the Rock Fort
The massive main gopuram of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. The dry Cauvery riverbed is in the foreground.
My feet properly singed, I returned to my hotel. Afternoon was already turning into evening, and I wanted to devote a full day to exploring the famous Ranganathaswamy Temple, so I decided to just hang out for the rest of the night. I had a great dinner of Chicken Hyderabadi, and quickly came to the realization that Trichy has all of the same problems as Madurai: anarchic traffic, garbage everywhere, no sidewalks, a lack of any sort of beauty, and nothing to do. Clearly, India's rapid economic growth has not really reached this part of the country yet. There are no cafes, cinemas, book stores, or anything to even remotely hold your interest once the sun goes down. I did find an "internet cafe", but it was shoved into a stuffy basement and had no creature comforts whatsoever. As a result, both nights in Trichy went something like this: eat dinner, read for two or three hours, watch "Family Guy" at 11, followed by "How I Met Your Mother", go to sleep. Exhilarating.

The morning of my only full day in Trichy I boarded Bus #1 (8 rupees to go the big temple, several miles north of the city center, and back. Take that auto drivers!), and alighted outside of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. (That's the last time I'm typing that name.) This time, I brought my camera.

Even more impressive than the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, this temple complex is the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, spanning 156 acres. There are seven layers of walls surrounding the temple, as well as 21 gopurams, the largest of which is a massive 240 feet tall. There are main entrances facing east, south, and north, but there is no west entrance. When the temple was built, a caste of Dalits, or Untouchables, lived on that side of the wall, and the builders did not want them to have access to the temple. No one is really sure when the majority of the structure was built, but sections of it have been around for at least 1,000 years. Most temples in India are dedicated to either Shiva or Vishnu, and this one pays homage to the latter. I paid for a wonderful guide named Partha to give me a tour of the complex, but he threw so much information at me that I could barely comprehend much of it, let alone write it down. I do remember him pointing out a couple of carvings from the Kama Sutra tucked away into obscure corners: one that depicted a deity enjoying the company of two maids, and another showing a man, as Partha delicately put it, "Doing it by himself." I guess it's a measure of my maturity that that's what I remember. Anyways, here are a few shots from within the temple grounds.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of carvings like this throughout the complex.

The temple elephant blessing worshippers.

Another Hall of 1,000 Pillars

Portuguese and Hindu soldiers fighting Muslims

The enormous south gopuram. The base dates from the 17th century, but the top section was actually built in the 1980's, and only painted in 2000.

A line of gopurams, as well as the golden dome that sits over the inner sanctum.
The temple was absolutely fascinating. I'm not what you would call a spiritual person, in fact I often find organized religion repugnant, but the sheer magnitude of the complex, as well as the intensity with which visitors to the temple threw themselves into worship, awed this cynic. As my tour was wrapping up, Partha informed me that a procession displaying the temple's main deity would march through the complex that evening.

After a few hours of doing nothing back in town, I scarfed down a vegetable biryani, which sat in my stomach like a brick for the rest of the night, and returned to the temple for the procession. First, two men emerged from the inner sanctum; one playing a drum, the other a horn. Then, the deity, held aloft, was brought out. At first, it was concealed behind the curtain in the picture below.
What had at first been a quiet crowd turned into a drone of prayers and chants. I didn't see a single other Westerner around, and I knew that I was seeing something really special. Eight shirtless Brahmins, members of the highest caste, carried the deity, while more followed and led the chants. It was difficult to get a good picture, since the crowd was tight and things happened quickly.
A quick video of the procession from behind.
Eventually, the crowd entered a small shrine, and things became so packed that I couldn't even get in. I lost sight of the deity, and went for one more wander around the temple complex. I'm glad Partha had told me about that, otherwise I would've completely missed it.

So, Trichy. Other than the somewhat interesting Rock Fort, and the hugely interesting Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (Ok, one last time), it's awful. Outside of the times I was touring a temple or eating, I was mind-numbingly bored. The fact that there were almost no other Western tourists didn't really help matters either. (After ten days in the country, I had probably seen 30 other Westerners. When they say it's the low season, they ain't kidding.) Most Indians were very friendly, but so many of them just wanted to suck money out of me that I started trying to avoid talking with them for more than a few moments. I began to realize how spoiled I am to live in relatively modern Saigon, where there are actual recreational activities on offer, and after my stays in Madurai and Trichy, I wanted nothing more than to get on the first plane back to Vietnam. Fortunately, my next (and penultimate) stop left me in far better spirits.
Random food pic - Egg dosai, my last meal in Trichy before heading back to the train station.


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