Palani – a temple town


Palani, a temple town in western Tamil Nadu, barely gets a mention in the guidebooks. Too close to the hill resort of Kodaikanal to be of much interest other than as a transport hub, the town was a necessary stopover on our rail journey between the Kerala coast and the hyperactive Tamil city of Madurai.

We arrived in the town just as it was starting to get dark – enough time to have something to eat and wander around the market stalls that stood at the base of the steps that led up to the hilltop temple. The temple, dedicated to the god Murugan, was clearly a big draw for south Indian pilgrims and all the necessary facilities were in place to service their needs. As well as numerous ‘hotels’ offering ‘Pure Veg’ food and a mass of stalls selling mass-produced trinkets and cheap jewellery, a large sign outside a booth offered an ‘Ear Boring’ service, while another advertised itself as ‘Tonsure Centre’, a place dedicated to providing the correct sort of haircut – head shaven with an application of sandalwood paste – for dutiful pilgrims.

The Murugan Temple – Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple to give its full glorious name – stands on a hill above the town. Murugan – aka Muruga, Kartikeya, Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya – is a Hindu god of war, a philosopher-warrior figure, son of Parvati and Shiva, who is particularly popular in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. The temple at Palani is one of six ‘abodes’ (actually, temples) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Murugan. A long flight of stone steps lead up to the top, as does a meandering path for elephants and winched cable car that takes a different, more direct route around the back of the mound.

A little too hot in my hotel room, even under the swishing fan, I dreamed that night of Mark E Smith of The Fall, who in my dream was performing a solo outdoor gig in a Norwich back garden. In the dream world, as in life, Smith was as rambunctious and curmudgeonly as you might expect. He also looked painfully thin, as well he might, and before I woke I recalled mentioning this to someone else present, saying, “I know he’s dead so I suppose this is a dream isn’t it?”

We stepped out into the streets at dawn next morning to make our way to the steps that led up to the temple, leaving our sandals at the bottom before we started the ascent. A line of orange-clad saddhus flanked the base of the steps and scattered by the wayside at various stages of the ascent were gift sellers who touted garlands and puja offerings to present of the shrines above. We were the only foreigners, the only obvious non-Hindus present, yet we were welcomed without fuss. Amplified music of devotional singing accompanied our climb, and mobile phones blazed away around us as we made our way uphill with the other visitors. As everywhere in India, there were numerous friendly requests for selfies – group photos that included us in the frame as some sort of Euro-exotica. This seemed fair exchange, and it was pleasing to know that somewhere out there in the digital ether, in a parallel world to this posting, there existed no small number of images on Instagram and Facebook that included our own heat-flushed faces.

The steps to the top – I did not count them but estimates range between 550—700 – are rock-cut into the hillside. For those unused to it, it can be oddly sensuous walking barefoot for any distance, especially on stone that is deeply embedded with the patina of human activity – a layering of daubed sandalwood paste and windblown dust compounded by the devout footfall of countless pilgrims. Heading uphill we passed chalked mandalas, small shrines and intriguing side temples with attendant bare-chested priests. Macaque monkeys frolicked in the trees that overhung the steps; a solitary owlet stood sentinel on a branch overlooking the plain below. Some of the more elderly pilgrims struggled with the effort of climbing, and a few reluctant children dragged along by parents complained noisily, but overall the atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed – more holiday fun than holy day solemnity.


At the top, groups of people were scattered around, snapping family pictures on their phones, eating snacks, waiting patiently for their turn for darshan (a view of the sculpted deity) within the temple itself. Large signs carried warnings about thieves and cheats. We circumambulated the temple clockwise, the scent of incense, jasmine and wood smoke permeating the clear, bright air. This intoxicating cocktail – so evocative, so quintessentially Indian – was my madeleine. Here was the India of old that I knew and loved, a deeply felt nostalgia rooted in time and place that touched a nerve, or rather, caressed it tenderly. Here was something that invoked the emotional memory of previous visits made decades earlier: an echo of that indescribable early morning magic when the deep, ancient culture of the subcontinent seemed to manifest itself in a mysterious yet timeless way. To adopt the epithet used by the late John Peel to describe his favourite band, The Fall, whose erstwhile leader I had so peculiarly dreamed about the previous night, India was ‘always different, always the same’. And it was true, despite rampant modernisation in recent years, India at heart was always different, always the same.







Kumano Kodō, Japan

downloadMy feature on walking part of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail in Japan will be published in a few days time in Elsewhere journal. Elsewhere is a Berlin-based print journal, published twice a year, dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination.

I was delighted to have a short piece on Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan published in the second issue and am now even more pleased to have a longer essay on the Kumano Kodō route in Honshū, Japan in the third.

The third edition also has features on Yangon, Myanmar by Alex Cochrane; Swedish Lapland by Saskia Vogel; Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada by Knut Tjensvoll Kirching; Belfast, Ireland by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh; Faversham Creek, England by Caroline Millar, and Berlin and Trieste, Italy by editor Paul Scraton.  The features and articles are accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Julia Stone, who also did the cover that shows the cedar forest through which much of the Kumano Kodō route passes.

Here is a very brief taster of my feature (the photos here on the blog below are not included in Elsewhere) :

“The temple here is considered to be the sacred centre of all the Kumano Kodō routes. The large fluttering banners that flank its entrance bear the temple’s distinctive emblem, the yatagarasu, a supernatural figure in the form of a three-footed crow with raised wings.”

To read the article you can buy the issue or even better a subscription to the journal.

You can follow Elsewhere Journal on its website, blog and Twitter.


Orthodox Walsingham

IMG_4535A few months ago whilst travelling in central Serbia I met a nun at Manasija monastery near Despotovac. I was talking with my Serbian friends in the monastery shop when the nun behind the counter, hearing our conversation in English, started to chat with us. It turned out she was Irish, although she sounded Home Counties English to my ears, and had once taught Religious Education at the same school that Princess Diana had attended. The nun, whose name I never learned, was bright and engaging, and keen to hear news of the old country. “Tell me, is Mrs Thatcher still alive? Is it true that she’s gone a bit doolally these days?” I ventured to suggest that the Iron Lady always was quite doolally in my book and she laughed. “And how is the Duke of Edinburgh? He always had a twinkle in his eye. Quite an eye for the ladies, I fancy.”

IMG_4470We went on to talk about Norfolk and she mentioned Dame Julian of Norwich. When I said that I lived less than a mile from her chapel she went quite dewy-eyed before going on to talk about Walsingham and the time she had spent there many years ago. We talked more, about Norwich, about education (“Ah, I could tell you were a teacher”); about how the best books require an input of effort in order to get something back out of them. We also spoke of children’s expectations of instantaneous reward, and about delayed gratification, which I can only suppose,  given the sort of unshakable faith that its adherents generally have, is the essence of what the monastic life is all about.

It was starting to go dark outside and my friends were hovering at the doorway wanting to leave – clearly, it was time to go. I picked up the jars of honey I had bought and bade the nun goodbye. She smiled warmly as I made my exit. “Thank you for bringing me those wonderful memories of Walsingham. I will treasure them. God bless.” It was nice to be appreciated but I never did find out how a well-educated Irishwoman came to be an Orthodox nun in an isolated monastery in the middle of Serbia: I was too polite to ask.

IMG_4525Fast forward to December and I am back in Walsingham myself, researching for a forthcoming book on Norfolk walks that will come out next year. It is a beautifully bright day with a huge sky and green corduroy fields that gleam as spikes of newly emerged winter wheat catch the low-slung mid-winter sun. I walk up the east side of the valley from the village and then descend down to the Stiffkey River before going up the opposite side. At the valley bottom, the river is in flood, its ford almost impassable with the recent deluge. The landscape around here is perhaps Norfolk at its least typical (although some might argue that the nearby village of Great Snoring is quintessentially Norfolk in spirit). Undulating, lush and well-wooded, with discrete valleys and hazy horizons, it reminds me of the Welsh Borders in many ways – something distinctly Celtic, almost Byronic, about its folds and creases.

IMG_4596 I return to Walsingham from the west side of the valley, following a greenway that would  have been one of several pilgrimage routes to the village in the past. The track emerges at the edge of the village alongside the path of an old railway track that in recent years has found new use as a walking route for pilgrims from the Slipper Chapel, a mile away. It was always a tradition to walk this last stretch to Walsingham barefoot – even King Henry VIII once performed this act of humility before returning two decades later to trash the priory during the Dissolution. As I arrive at the track, a group of robed monks are silhouetted as they walk west; walking, quite literally, into the sunset.

IMG_4603Across the track, the original station building still stands next to its redundant platform. But something strange has happened. Now the small red-brick building sports a small silver onion dome with a cross above it: it has found a new life as an Orthodox chapel. Surely it is this humble chapel that my Manasija nun remembers so fondly? This modest converted building is her personal connection with Walsingham. Now, purely by chance, it is also mine.