The drive through the mountains from Alleppey was well worth the 76R, just less than a British quid. Kumily is for the rich Indian tourist or wealthy middle class European on a two week tour of Kerela. Accommodation for backpackers is limited and extremely expensive for what it is. I felt poor. After an hour of viewing overpriced, damp rooms, the Rolex hostel accommodated me for a hard bargained 250R a night double room. I even got my own bathroom for that price. God I’m good.
Kumily is surrounded by mountains covered in spice and tea plantations. Presumably for this reason, the main town is full of spice shops. Kumily is also a key stopping place for Hindu pilgrims on their way to The Ayappa Temple so the sleepy little town appears to be more hectic in the months of December and January. It’s a small place with a strong and constant flow of tourists. No hassle, clean and a little cold at night as we’re quite high up. I like it yaar.
The following day was a good day. A really good day. I liked it very much.
This is one of the best experiences of my journey so far. I did the Hindu pilgrimage to the Ayappa Temple. Warning. This blog entry could be long.
Firstly, I sank a lovely parotta breakfast and a delightful cup of masala chai before I headed to a local shop to experience for the very first time the delight of the Indian delicacy Paan. The bettle nut and flavoured spices are wrapped in a leaf which I then slotted in my mouth to chew and suck on. My mouth filled with the red liquid, it’s ridiculously strong and bursting with flavour. Tobacco can be added. So I chucked some in my gob. The flavour intensified. It was an interesting taste explosion erupting in my mouth but not a very enjoyable one. This is the sweet that stains your teeth red, rots your teeth and gives you a bigger energy boost than any pot of chai could. It wasn’t nice. I spat it out half way through. I won’t be doing that again. Box ticked.
I then bought a ticket for some bamboo rafting and trekking the following day. This ticket was purchased in the usual Indian fashion. After agreeing to spending big money, for me anyway, I had to jump into tuk tuk to go to a variety of destinations to guarantee my eco-friendly trek through the world famous Periyar Nature and Animal Reserve. A bizarre and long drawn out purchase that left me late for my bus to Pampa for my pilgrimage to The Ayappa Temple in Sabarimala. At this point I almost turned back and gave up on my pilgrimage. But I stayed determined.
I walk the main road, suddenly realising the sheer volume of pilgrims that pass through the town. Bus after bus, jeep after jeep pass through, stopping to pick up supplies for the pilgrimage. Most pilgrims don the black dholis and all must wear the holy beads in order to be allowed into the temple. For 41 days, the pilgrims must not eat meat or have any sexy business with their lady. Although I could make the pilgrimage, my Hindu friends warned me I may not be allowed into the temple itself. Either way, I reckon this is going to be fun.
I befriend a few pilgrims in Kumily but my attempts to hitch a lift or jump on their mini buses proved unsuccessful as they were already jam packed. I then met my ticket inspector for my local bus ride to Pamba, Shaji. He made me his new best friend although he had limited English and I spoke no Mayalam whatsoever. He took me to the local temple and I was fed handsomely for a small donation. I met some interesting and happy Hindus, setting the trend for the days activities. Smiles and head wiggles are popular down South.
Making it back to the bus, we depart for Pampa.
Traveling alone rocks.
The bus is full of pilgrims. Packed. The bus winds along the mountain roads, through finally manicured spice and tea plantations, rubber trees and pineapple crops. The view from my bus is awesome. The fresh air filled the bus through the open windows. The scenery roles on for hours, miles and miles of beauty and mental driving round bendy mountain roads kept my energy levels topped up. I was buzzing with anticipation. Shaji occasionally talking to me in Malaylam. I wiggle my head, pretending to understand.
Every person on the bus to Pampa is a pilgrim. They start to chant, singing a call and response, football style chant. I’m in the middle of something amazing, my smile as big as the experience.
Some pilgrims start a 61km walk from Emunili to Sabarimala. As we get closer, there are hundreds of pilgrims lining the streets, playing drums, chanting and throwing coloured powder at each other. It’s a carnival atmosphere. This is only a December and January thing. Although the temple is shut for the rest of the year it is one of the richest temples in India. This Ayappa God seems to be pretty popular with the Hindus. There’s thousands of them. I completely underestimated the scale of this.
We stop at a town near the temple. The town is surrounded by pineapple fields so when the pineapple wallahs jump on board I feel obliged to buy a slice covered in obsessive amounts of chilli powder. Strange mix. I eat it anyway to the delight of the wallahs.
There is a 24 hour bus service to surrounding towns and the bus station in Pampa is packed with buses and the Ayappa pilgrims. The bus journey took four hours. The 100km bus ride was a tricky one, maneuvered expertly by the bus driver, missing the occasional falling log from the van in front. Shaji and the bus driver had befriended me and through a mixture of hand signals and animated Malayam, I understand that he will lead me to the Pampa entrance. This entrance takes pilgrims the five km up the mountain to Sabarimala where the Ayappa temple is situated.
The first sight I arrive to see is the pilgrims bathing in the ghats, this purifies them. The place is well lit and has a number of shops and help outlets. This is a well run machine.
We bump into some dolly people who think I may not be able to join the pilgrimage. After a lengthy discussion, a few head wiggles, I realise they want 1000R to take me to the top. Their concern an obvious ploy to get money from me. Standard. I decline and buy a black scarf to try and fit in a bit more. How a six foot tall blonde English man fits in on a Hindu pilgrimage I don’t know, but it’s the thought that counts. I was going to the top, no body was going to stop me.
I ignore the constant calls from the dolly people that line the pathway and the lovely guys who want to carry me up the 5km on a wooden chair. I’m sure I can walk up the well lit path to the top unaided. I’m a big boy now. I have strong legs.
As I walked up the steep mountain path I sensed the surprise and astonishment in the Indian people I met. I suddenly felt very white. I also under estimated the scale of this pilgrimage. The volume of people that make the 5km trek up to Sabarimala is huge, many thousands of Hindus make the journey everyday. Wrapped in a cloth, they carry offerings and their coconuts on their heads. The humid weather and exercise leave me drenched in sweat even though the sun had set. The smiles and head wiggling were on overload. I was buzzing. Groups of Indian men posing proudly for photos with me.
Reaching the very top, I pass yet another security post and see a vast queue in front of me. Thousands are packed tightly together waiting for their chance to get into the Ayappa Temple. This is the moment when a huge Indian man stops me and asks in a firm and direct voice, ”why are you here?”
Hindus had warned me that I could climb the mountain but not enter the temple. Firstly I must be wearing the correct clothing and prayer beads as well as making sure that I didn’t touch either meat or a woman sexually for 41 days.
For a brief minute, I thought I was in trouble. These guys are army trained beef cakes. I replied to him that I was intrigued by the Hindu faith and the Ayappa Temple and I wanted to experience Indian culture. He smiled a warm smile. ”I am a member of the disaster team. I have someone that wants to meet you” he responded.
My poor little mind and its overly active imagination was running riot.
He led me to someone from Asianet TV. They interviewed me. There was a large group of security and police gathering around me. The Hindu pilgrims fascinated by the presence of a white person and a TV crew were forming a large circle. They were discussing my arrival keenly. According to the staff I was the first foreigner they have ever seen visit the temple. I’m sure this isn’t true but it heightened my experience. I was like a pop star. Celebrity status. I was confused by all the fuss but quite happy to be the guest of honour.
Two of the disaster team, Riteesh and Giresh, who in fact were security men trained by the army, led me to the front of the long queuing system and took me through to the temples. I got a tour of the massive temple area and joined in with proceedings. The pilgrims crack some coconuts, receive sandal paste in the forehead and visit both the mother temple and the famed Ayappa Temple to give there donations. I also received a leaf with flowers and yellow and red coloured powders. I bought a tin of Persona which is a holy liquid which will bare good luck to people who you give it to. The two disaster team members were polite and very informative. Proud people who wanted me to understand their faith.
I noticed a huge bonfire of burning broken coconuts. Every pilgrim threw their coconuts onto the furnace. I’m unsure why. Something about new beginnings and holy milk.
This whole experience left me buzzing with adrenalin. On coming out of the complex the cameraman was on me straight away. I recorded another brief interview for Asianet. I would be on tomorrow mornings news. I’ve now featured in a Bollywood movie, a Rajasthani music video and now I’ll be on the telly. I’ll be in Hello magazine soon, showing you round my crib and playing with my fluffy little dogs.
I conveyed my appreciation and shook a lot of hands before picking up the pace to walk down the mountain to get a bus back to Kumily. The Government bus service runs non stop, 24 hours a day to surrounding towns and villages in Kerela. Lucky for me as its almost 11pm before I reach the bottom.
What a day.
Bravo. I’m such a crazy explorer fella me. This story will run for years.
I collapsed on my hostel bed at 4am. My alarm woke me up at 6.30am for my bamboo rafting and trek around the Periyar national tiger reserve. Poor time management on my account but definitely worth every minute. I met some lovely people, both rich middle class Indians and rich tourists. The day had cost me a lot, smashing my daily budget but well worth it.
I met a couple from Brighton, Mike and Meesh. They were on my level. We had a blast. We trekked through beautiful forest areas and paddled our way through lakes on our slightly dodgy lopsided bamboo rafts. We found bones from various animals. We even had a guide with a gun. Nice. We spotted a variety of wildlife such as birds, giant squirrels, monkeys and we even spotted an elephant. We also spotted tiger prints in the mud but no actual tiger sightings. The provided lunch was awful and I’d finished it all by 11am. Good old Indian value.
During conversation with Mike and Meesh I made a decision to keep traveling through Asia for longer, maybe even picking up a teaching job to fund my travels further. Maybe a bit of volunteering. I also intend to take Charley out to see Asia in July. She’ll love it. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime for her.