Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yale, the temple cow and North Britain.

Our last day in the far south. In the old colonial buildings we find the marriage register of one Elihu Yale. He went on to settle in America and establish an educational establishment that still bears his name.  In the church next door a memorial stone laid by an American ambassador.
The heffer in the Hindu temple is pregnant. A cause for much joy and celebration. The arrival of calves in such a place considered to be a most propitious event.
The multi-tasking professor with the three mobile phones has arranged for us to met an elder of the Church of Scotland. In 1947 the elders father met a Scottish missionary, a Reverend Trotter, who had discovered a group of villages that had ancient gospels and maintained an oral link to St.Thomas that went back 70 generations. As far as he is aware the villages are still out there amid the vastness of southern India.

Before we leave a chance to tour the church. St.Andrews Chennai. A little touch of Scotland in India. A tombstone to a Mr. William Gordon. His address :  The Manse of Birnie N.B.  The N.B stands for North Britain. A piece of high Imperial snobbery when all mention of Scotland was dropped and to be Scottish , rather than North British, was decidedly non-you .

The church a most un-Presbyterian place. Much laughter and light. An old fashioned Scottish emphasis on doing things rather than arguing amongst themselves. They run  hospitals for the poor (3) and schools (3). The minister tells ' the font ' of future plans to establish a school for blind girls with leprosy and a hospice for abandoned children . Angus feels that we may be visiting southern India again.

The battery on the mobile phone runs out as the congregation sings a halting lilt. The minister says it was Mahatma Gandhis favourite song. Another Indian mystery.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sensible boy.

Downtown Madras. Busy, hot and noisy. While ' the font ' goes in search of ingredients for cashew nut curry Angus goes in search of a cold beer. He finds it in a shop that sells garlands. Beer and garlands - an unusual retail  combination.

Southern Indian cuisine seems to consist of lentil porridge enlivened by the occasional piece of fish steamed in banana leaf. ' Exotic ' fruits in abundance . These of course are not in the slightest bit exotic to the locals. ' The font ' cannot pass an ' exotic ' fruit without wanting to try it. Naturally, the local street vendors are only too happy to oblige. ' Please be trying this it is most delicious ' . From time to time ' the font ' holds out something choleraic looking and  asks Angus , ' where's your sense of adventure ? ' . The answer to this question is simple ; '' it's back in the hotel bar dreaming of a juicy steak ".

A shop selling rare Kanchipuryamjari silk. Made since the dawn of time in one little village. This silk has strands that are 25 metres long. This is apparently unusual. ' The font ' haggles . The story that this is the silk that the Turin Shroud is made from is retold , several times, by the shop keeper. The price stops coming down. Angus says he thought the Turin Shroud was made of linen. The owner glares.  Finally, a price that satisfies all parties is agreed. Outside the silk shop dog does what he does best. SleepsSensible boy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The tomb of St.Thomas.

The church that houses St.Thomas's tomb a large, white plastered , much pinnacled affair. A bit like St.Patrick's on steroids. Rebuilt in 1893 by a Portugese architect who seems to have based his design on a wedding cake.

A large, indecorous, sign points the way. " Entry to St.Thomas at back of church ". The tomb itself a disappointment. Down a flight of unlit steps into a gloomy crypt. We're guided by the lights in our i-Phones . A pair of ' In ' and ' Out ' doors. The setting unsympathetic. I don't know what we'd expected but it certainly wasn't this. The low ceilings, air conditioners and wooden slated walls more reminiscent of a Greyhound bus station circa 1970. Even ' the font ' is lost for something positive to say settling for a half hearted '' It must be practical in the heat " .

Next door a small museum holding the tip of the spear that killed the apostle , a sliver of his bone and more surprisingly   a life sized and rather tipsy looking  Father Christmas. A young priest tells us that the apostles body is no longer here having been stolen by pirates and shipped off to Italy in the 12th century. Only a few, much venerated, shards remain.

Outside, the church dog has sensibly opted for a long, deep, sleep in the only shaded spot in the car park. He has a look of peculiar contentment on his face as befits a dog who guards an apostle .

Monday, January 28, 2013

The little chapel on the hill.

Our guide is a multi-tasker. As we climb the steps she provides a running commentary about the martyrdom of St.Thomas. She does this while simultaneously answering her phones.The story of  the saint being speared to death by the soldiers of a hostile Hindu king interspersed with instructions to her husband, her sons and a group of Singaporean educationalists who are due to arrive in two days time. During the ascent the Singaporean educationalists call three times and are reassured that they don't need malaria medication for their visit.

Finally we arrive at the summit. At the top a small chapel rebuilt by the Portugese in the sixteenth century . Next door to it a shrine . Red, white, black and brass. A ' strident ' colour scheme . No forgetting we're in India. It's hotter up here. 108 in the shade of a solitary banyan tree .

On the altar of the chapel stands the Mount Cross. Dug out of the ground by the Portugese in 1547 when they replaced the old church with this new one. A dark, shiney block of granite two feet square. Carved on it a Persian Cross and  an inscription in some ancient long lost language , possibly Pahlavi. The meaning of the inscription is unknown, or at least disputed. It is said that the saint was praying in front of  this cross when he was speared to death. Many supernatural stories attach themselves to this carving but in its simple grandeur it is quite powerful enough. An exotic older cousin of the Celtic stone crosses that dot the Scottish and Swedish landscapes.

What a strange story this is. We're not moved by religious feeling but curiosity. All we knew of this man Thomas was that he was a doubter. His story condensed into a hundred or so words in the gospels. And yet here we are on the tip of India , in a suburb of Chennai, at a spot where twenty years of healing the sick came to a sudden end. Around him has grown up an ancient and exotic branch of the Christian family. As old as anything in the ' west ' . Could this story be true ?

We head off, the professors phones ringing, past the Christmas decorations and into the city. The site of Thomas's tomb the next stop on our journey.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

In search of Saint Thomas.

We head off to Chennai in search of St.Thomas.

The Air India flight delayed then the takeoff  aborted. One of those days. The captain comes on the intercom to say " we've had some technical problems but I think they may be under control ". We take off on the second attempt. The other passengers clap and cheer in that unselfconscious way American college kids sometimes do .

The stewardess serves our meal. She unsmilingly tells us it's roast hen . Somehow the pasta is still frozen, the chicken tepid but the peppers scaldingly hot . '' A miraculous oven " says ' the font ' tucking in with gusto

The professor from the local university is at the airport to meet us. An expert on 9th century Indian art. She has three mobile phones that she keeps concealed in various folds of her sari. '' You're running late. You won't need to freshen up " she says by way of greeting.

Our first stop St.Thomas Mount. Barely half a mile from the end of the airport runway. The supposed site of the saints martyrdom in AD 72. We know we're in the right place because there's a sign telling us to take our shoes off and next to it a marble pillar crowned with a statue of the saint . '' Only 150 steps to the top " says the professor striding off in the hundred degree heat with a jauntiness that belies her age.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A most luxurious vehicle.

Mr.Singh, the usual cab driver, is away. He arranges for ' the font ' to be driven around Delhi by his cousin , also called Mr.Singh. '' Please do not be worrying . My cousin has a most luxurious vehicle ".

When it shows up among the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S Classes on the hotel forecourt the ' luxurious vehicle ' is instantly recognizable . British or Australian readers of a certain age may notice the taxis more than passing resemblance to a 1956 Morris Oxford.

Inside Mr.Singh has personalized the interior , or , to be more precise  Mrs.Singh has personalized the interior. The roof, seats, sun visor and door panels have been recovered in an unyielding  grey,black and white quilted plastic material. The sort of fabric that might best be described as ' hard wearing '. Mrs.Singh has also crocheted an almost matching cover for the taxi meter, the gear lever , the window winders and the rear parcel shelve. A small pink elephant god graces the dashboard. To cap off  the luxurious retro fit an electric  fan, single seat belt  and fire extinguisher have been installed for the benefit of passengers sitting on the left hand side.

The manager wanders down and asks ' the font ' if a hotel car might not be more comfortable. This offer is graciously declined . '' She is most luxurious vehicle . No ? " says Mr.Singh. ' Quite unique ' replies ' the font '. Everyone, with the possible exception of the hotel manager,  is happy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Delhi Dogs

They're everywhere. Stretched out on street corners, dozing on steps, they're even to be found asleep on roofs. India has more free roaming dogs than any other country. Scores of millions of them. It also has a third of the global rabies toll. More than 20,000 people die every year from the disease. In Delhi alone 85,000 people reported being bitten during the course of 2012. The dogs are tolerated because they keep down the rat population.

Most of the dogs are the local breed ;  the Indian pariah dog. With its wedge shaped head , pointed ears and curling tail they are thought to be descendents of prehistoric Chinese immigrants. Others think they may be related to the equally ancient Australian dingo.

None of this bothers the little Jain lady. To her they're all Gods creatures. As she ambles through the alleyways they trot up to her. She doesn't say much but they rub gently against her sari, unafraid, tails wagging. For the dogs a brief moment of unbridled joy -  a human who cares. The brightness in their eyes says it all. 

A quick check, a stroke behind the ears, a quiet word of encouragement. A reminder that all life has nobility. Somehow she has names for all of them. Those with monkey bites have their sores cleaned, ticks and fleas are treated, bleeding paws salved. The hungry fed.  If possible the dying taken away for a final moment of dignity.

Innocence, sainthood or naivete ? A waste of time ? Whatever it is we're thankful to have seen it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

All well.

A late night arrival after a long delayed flight from India. Due to snow in Munich what should have taken twelve hours took more than twenty. 

More tomorrow but yes, we did find St.Thomas, his tomb , a variety of improbable relics and what remains of the oldest church in the world. We also stumbled across an ancient silk weaving village . The locals say it made the cloth for the shroud of Turin . This reeks of good marketing rather than having any semblance to historic accuracy . They charge accordingly.

The saintly Jain lady with the hospital for dogs and the school for blind girls are both doing well.

Angus can report that Indian McDonalds don't sell beef patties but do excellent chicken McNuggets.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An immutable rule of life.

The dashboard in the little Skoda lights up. First orange then red. A Coney Island of colour. Finally a sign : '' Fault ! EMC indicates ETC and ABS malfunction ! '' Acronym heaven.

Angus takes the car to the garage. Twice. The first time the diagnostic man has disappeared. '' Should have made an appointment mate " says a gentleman in overalls behind the reception desk. ' I did ' comes the reply.

The second time the lights miraculously go off as I drive into the garage forecourt. '' Doesn't seem to be any problem. Why don't you bring it in when the warning lights are on ? " says the diagnostic man who's now reappeared. On the motorway home the lights come on again.

One of lifes immutable rules. Cars repair themselves when you get to the garage and then go wrong again ten minutes after you leave. The same true of children and doctors and pets and vets.

This morning we shall go to the airport in the big 4x4. See you in a week.

Monday, January 14, 2013

In search of St.Thomas and the oldest church in the world..

'' Where's the oldest church in the world ? " asks ' the font ' . All my guesses - Rome, Armenia, Israel - wrong.  It's in India. Seems that in AD 42 St.Thomas overcame his doubts and set off on a voyage to the East.

Tomorrow Angus flies off to Moscow and Beijing to speak to serious folk in dark suits about ' trillion dollar coins ' and ' Brixit '.  ' The font ' will be heading off to India to visit the school for blind girls and visit the saintly but disorganized Jain lady with the chaotic dog hospital ( Frontline and Avantix already on the way ) .

Later,on a whim,we'll take Air India down to the south of the country in search of St.Thomas. Not a religious quest ; more intrigued that this early figure should have wandered so far away and built a series of churches. 

A call to a professor at the local university. The saints tomb easy to find. The cave where he lived and the  place of his martyrdom a little more difficult to pinpoint  - a  little chapel , surrounded by the lights of the new airport runway , marks the spot. The six churches Thomas built  scattered across southern India. Some now washed into the sea, others in ruins, others have simply disappeared. The little church of Thiruvitkamhode right on the tip of the subcontinent the only suvivor.

Here's a couple of links. The second from the London Review of Books  ( if you can deal with the hassle of the free registration ) the more interesting of the two .

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A great view.

The gutter cleaner arrives at eight on Saturday morning. He's brought his wife. They're here for three hours and chat away constantly and without pause the whole time. He at the top of the ladder, she at the bottom. He shouts down to tell her there's a great view from up here. She shouts back " you are lucky ". There is, as far as I can tell, no hint of sarcasm in her reply.

The chicken counter in the supermarket. A new sign with a picture of a smiling young couple surrounded by happy looking chickens. Underneath the slogan  '' Raised in the fresh air ". I've seen  personalised signs like this at the meat display but never one that shows which particular farm the chickens came from. A sign of growing interest in food and / or animal welfare ?

Overhead the sky full of large Royal Air Force transport aircraft taking French troops to Mali. Unlike civil planes the military aircraft fly in packs of three or four , their contrails trailing behind them as straight as a ruler. They used to be going to Afghanistan, then Libya , now Mali. World events unfolding in the skies above our sleepy little patch of paradise.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cruise Control and Les Miserables

Cruise control in the big 4x4 gives up the ghost. The dealer provides a ' courtesy car ' while it's being fixed. An eleven year old Rover ' Streetwise ' with 170,000 k's on the clock. The clutch has a kick like a mules. Brakes like a sponge. All in all an unforgettable driving experience. Why are courtesy cars always dire ?

Home to find Madame Bay's ' Wild Child '  voiturette parked in the drive . She's at the breakfast table nursing a large cup of coffee while  carefully examining the cinema schedule in the local paper :

Django Unchained
Texas Chainsaw 3D
Life of Pi
Les Miserables
Zero Dark Thirty

Madame Bay announces that she will take the granddaughters to see Les Miserables. '' You can't beat a good French movie ". In these parts Russell Crowe clearly an honorary Frenchman. Sometimes its simply easier to agree. 

The big 4x4 is ready for collection in the afternoon. '' Monsieur. We've reset the cruise control computer. You'll find it's working just fine now " says the unsmiling young man at reception. On the motorway home it's soon apparent that it isn't.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The new micro venture.

The morning routine. Baker, newsagent and fishmonger. The baker has opened a small ' salon de the ' in the corner of the shop next to the cash till. He calls it a ' salon de the '. Others might call it a table and two chairs. "Patisserie a emporter ou sur place ". I wish him well in his new venture. He beams.