by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
“How much do you want to pay?” the receptionist asked.
How much do I want to pay? No one had ever asked me before. I wish they had because I would not be staying in cheap hotels if I had a choice.
May I see the room first?
“No. How much?” he asked again.”
I’ve been paying $10 U.S. a night, I say.
“Okay.” He passed the registration book toward me. In India, we had discovered that we had to sign three different papers with copies of our passports and charge cards. One copy is given to the police department every day, another goes to the corporate office, and the remaining with the hotel. This is in addition to the registration on the computer. One manager explained that the system of three sign-in sheets was started by the British in 1930 and it has never been changed. Later, the computer was added on. We discovered that many Indian practices had been started before 1930 with the British and had not been changed since Independence in 1947. One only has to wander around any city in India and you can see beautiful buildings that were built under British rule, but since the British moved out no one has done any maintenance. Paint has peeled, mold has grown under the eaves, and trees have sprouted on the roofs, so I was not surprised at the antiquated sign-in requirements.
We were on a trip around the southern tip of India to visit all the temples of the Raja Raja, where each temple is covered by thousands and thousands of life-size statues, all different and all hand-painted.
We traveled by train from Calcutta to Chennai and found a hotel. Early the next morning we found a travel company that provided an English-speaking (but not the kind of English we speak) driver, and a car for the tour. The cost of the car plus driver and gas was $26 a day, a bargain hard to beat. The plan was to visit all the Raja Raja temples and visit the southernmost point of India before turning up the west coast all the way to Goa.
At each city where we were to spend a night, the driver would drive us to a clean hotel, but we would have to get our own room. That is how I discovered bargaining for a room. These were not the big, expensive hotels where tour groups stop. However, each room was clean and the hotels usually had a nice restaurant where we could get dinner.
Unfortunately, we had picked up a bug in Chennai and that, in combination with the fact that the Indian food in the state of Temil Nada was inedible for us, reduced us to eating cookies and fruit. India has a fruit vendor at every corner and more beautiful fruit would be hard to find anywhere in the world. After a couple of weeks, we had each lost about twenty pounds and the bug was gone.
The next day we left to visit the first city, Tranjavur, where a small temple had been built. The Raja Raja of the Chola dynasty built elaborate temples covered with sometimes millions of statues, all life-size and hand-painted. Some cities had smaller ones, but the ones at Madurai were the crowning glory. As far as I could ever tell, there were four, possibly five separate temples there.
We arrived in late afternoon in Madurai and drove to a hotel next to the large temple. Reception asked what I wanted to pay and I told him we had been paying ten dollars a night. He suggested the penthouse. I agreed and began to fill out all the paperwork. Ted told the driver we would be staying and to come back for us the next day about noon. The porter picked up our key and suitcase and then followed us to the elevator. The hotel had six floors and we reached the top. He dropped our bag by a staircase, handed us the key and pointed up.
We looked around and climbed the stairs. At the top there was a flimsy metal door with frosted panels. The key fit and we entered. The bathroom was to the right just after entering. We continued in, and discovered that the bedroom had a large window with a small porch just outside. There, the view of the temple rose, so close we could see the life-size statues on it. Ted had read that there are over a million statues and each one seems to have been freshly painted. It was mesmerizing to stand there and see what we had come so far to view, right outside our hotel room.
Inside, it was still warm as the room had been locked all day. I spotted a smallish fan mounted on the wall and pulled the string. It began to rotate from the front door to the bathroom, stopping each time before pushing any air into the bedroom. Ted reached up to adjust the rotation to include the bed when the cover flew off, clattering along the floor. A fan blade flew so near his face he could feel the push. We both jumped back, glad neither of us had been hit.
We might have been more upset about the room had it cost more than ten dollars a night and had it been somewhere else. After dinner we were joined by a few other guests of the hotel on the little porch, all admiring the towering edifice.
The next morning we visited the temple, along with what felt like a million people. Inside, men were swinging incense burners and the smell flowered the air. Men and women thronged their way through, stopping to kiss various items and steps where people walked. Inside, it is hard for Westerners to know what each niche stands for; some seem to be small gift shops, and others where statues of the gods sit. In the temple yards, people were cooking meals in large pots, and by noon many people had lined up for the free meals provided by the monks of the temple.
By noon, we were on our way to see more of southern India and continued our adventure.
Another amazing adventure! I really think, if not already in the process, you should write a memoir of your travels. How fascinating it would be!!! Blessings. Elaine
Maria, this tour sounds fascinating. As always, your travel stories are so interesting.
Every time I read one of your stories I can’t help thinking how brave you are to venture out with no pre-planned hotels or anything like that. Such fascinating journeys!
Maria, thank you for this very interesting and educational piece on the Raja Raja temples. I’ll Google and research.