Kanyakumari was on our 24-hour transit stop, between disembarking from the North-South train and catching the South-East train the following day. The expansive State of Tamil Naidu stretches out to the North East, boasting a landscape unique to India. Some of India’s most popular temples are to be found here. It is also here that the formidable Western Ghats come to a dramatic halt. Spreading all the way from Mumbai peppered with high altitude tea plantations, colonial area hill stations, sprawling forests and home to minority tribes.
Making our way from the railway station to the village, it became apparent that Kanyakumari was not claiming to be international tourist hub dot com. As the most Southern town on the Indian sub-content it has huge local appeal. This is not majestic in the un-spoilt sense of our beloved Cape Point. The dusty village with her markets, inhabitants and sacred sites spill right out onto the rocky coast line. As this is where the Arabian, Andaman and Laccadive Seas meet. During the day families, friends and pilgrims meet for picnics and for spiritual bathing in rock pools in the shadows of temples. They are still there to watch the setting sun. And they may still be there to see the rising sun. A festive atmosphere abounds which attracts stray dogs, beggars, holy men and vendors. It is perhaps the only place in the world to purchase candy floss and pot scourers from fleet footed sales men while jostling for space to absorb the dawning of a new day. There are vendors catering for all possible needs that can crop up at 4am; hot spicy chai, fresh coconuts, roasted nuts, fruit, t-shirts, water pistols, mobile strobe lights, jojo’s, I-love-Kanyakumari caps, Bollywood dvd’s, feather dusters, Aviators…
It is India represented in both the past and the future. It is organized mayhem dressed in colour and texture. And smell.
Maximizing the time available in this hamlet called for an early start. We joined a large group of male pilgrims as the doors to the Kumari Amman Temple opened at 04h30. The Temple is a few meters from where 3 oceans meet. On entering the Temple shoes and shirts are removed. Walking barefoot on the cool granite floors created a connectedness with an ancient and sacred world. The sound of crashing waves floated into the Temple. While inside, the cavernous chambers were filled with the sound of chanting and the dancing reflections and shadows of ghee filled lamps.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Pilgrims we entered the towering temple dedicated to Kumari, a manifestation of the Great Goddess Devi. Vulva-shaped votive candles adorned the inner chambers enhancing intricately carved pillars, wall panels and ceilings. Holy men met us as we entered the inner sanctum. Permission was granted to view for a few minutes puja being performed – washing, nourishing and dressing goddess Kumari. The deity is beautifully carved from black granite. Priest offered to smear sandalwood paste on our foreheads. Completing a circular passage around Kumari, pilgrims briefly warmed the palms of their right hands before touching the top of their heads in an act of transferring blessing. Priest poured holy water into eagerly cupped hands, this was partly sipped and the rest was brushed off onto the heads of devotees. It was a mesmerizing and deeply spiritual encounter.
On retrieving footwear and t-shirts we joined a billowing and enthusiastic crowd awaiting the new sun.
At the scheduled departure time of 13h35, the weekly Kanyakumari – Puduchery Express Train # 16862 started the journey east. The overnight train service lasted just over 15 hours and stopped at 21 stations en-route. Before night fall the dramatically changing landscape, dotted with vast wind farms – glided past. Tropical vegetation making way for impressive mountains, cultivated lands and villages strung along the railway line.
On most trains a 3 tier first class service is available. There is slight variation with regards to the number of bunk beds, thickness of privacy curtains and quality of bedding. 2-AC proved to be comfortable, clean with an air-conditioning system stuck on the ‘frantic’ option. A multitude of overhead fans ensured all possible flying critters remained airborne.
Both darkness and heat consumed Train # 16862