By the time the taxi rolled up at the entrance to Woodlands in Mylapore it was just past 9.30 in the morning and the reception was relatively empty which ensured I was able to check in quickly after filling out all the usual forms and handing over my passport for it to be photocopied by the hotel staff. I then left my rucksack with the porters in the lobby and went straight to Vrindavan, the excellent vegetarian restaurant within the hotel, where I ordered a pretty good dish of dhal with a couple of fresh baked chapattis just before closing time. Satisfied that I had managed to get some good quality food inside me, more than happy that I had successfully managed get to Chennai on the day I intended, I went straight to my deluxe non-AC double room after I had eaten in order to rest. As luck would have it the room had been recently renovated and was therefore in sparkling condition with a big fan already whirring away in the centre of the ceiling. I was now pretty tired from my trials and tribulations from another day on the road in India, another one of quite a few I had taken over the years, over the decades.
The day had begun that morning in Bylakuppe, a good couple of hours to the west of Mysore and which now seemed like a pretty long time ago. It had ended on the east side of the country in Chennai, one of India’s true mega cities and which when I first visited over 25 years ago was still known as Madras. There was certainly no doubting the fact that this time around my room was a lot more comfortable and generally a lot less rough around the edges than the room I’d had when I was last in town, which was four years ago. That had also been as part of a trip down to Tiruvannamalai, the Ramanasramam, just like this was one was.
Back then I had been unable to get a room at Woodlands in Mylapore because it had been fully booked. Somehow I had ended up in a place called the Himalaya in an area of the city known as Triplicane which was close to Chennai railway station and which turned out to be quite heavily Muslim in terms of the demographic. Despite the fact that the staff were pretty unwelcoming and the room was decidedly basic, I did have excellent night’s sleep there, which just goes to show that appearances can sometimes be deceptive. After breakfast early the next morning in a nearby restaurant I had made my way across to Woodlands in Mylapore from the Himalaya, in order to book a taxi from the Woodlands travel desk in order for it to take me further down south.
This time around I also enjoyed a good night’s sleep in surroundings which were much more comfortable and I guess quite a bit more expensive as well, but that was fine by me as I had safely made it to Chennai after one or two hiccups along the way. So the next morning after a substantial buffet breakfast at Vrindavan, which was all part of the room price, I made my way to the travel desk where I would again book a car to take me to Tiruvannamalai. Breakfast by the way had been South Indian style; iddlys, vadai, chutneys and various spicy gravy dishes all washed down with hot sweet Indian coffee served in stainless steel little cups and all really rather delicious.
The travel desk was actually an office located at the back of the substantial compound which was comprised of the various buildings which made up Woodlands. These buildings included the main reception building with two restaurants, two or three accommodation blocks, a swimming pool, a shop, a large hall for weddings, a fully functioning Hindu temple along with various other offices including the travel desk. In effect it was like a tiny village in the middle of the city and if you wanted you could stay there for days on end without ever having to leave the compound at all.
The same lady – Mrs Panda – was at the travel office as who was there four years ago when I last used the Woodlands car service. I had chosen to go back to Woodlands as first time around the driver Mrs Panda provided for me had been excellent. There had been no game playing such as trying to take me to some showrooms along the way in the hope of earning a little bit of commission if I was dumb enough to want to buy a bunch of overpriced shawls or other stuff like that. My driver had just sat in silence behind the wheel, stopped once for a tea break and took me directly to where I wanted to go, end of story, something which suited me just fine.
Of course the 3000 IR that I had paid Mrs Panda was massively more expensive than what it would have cost if I had just taken the bus but time was of the essence. Going by taxi took away all the sweaty hassle of getting to and from the bus stations, then having to find just where in the station the buses departed from in order to get to wherever it was you wanted to go. Instead of all that the taxi just delivered me straight to my destination which was all that I wanted, simple as that. This time around, four years later, the price of a taxi from Woodlands to Tiruvannamalai had somehow increased from 3000 to 4500 rupees which was a pretty steep hike if you think about it but it proved difficult for me to get Mrs Panda to lower it. Since the exchange rate for pounds to rupees was excellent I did not have much of an inclination to try too hard to bring the price down a bit so this meant that once the deal was agreed all I had to do was check myself out of Woodlands and get into the car.
By the time I hit the road in the taxi it was just gone 10.30 in the morning which meant that according to my reckoning I should arrive at the ashram at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon if the highway was clear. The further we made our way through the south of Chennai the more it became apparent to me just how much the city had expanded in the four years since I had last been there, just how quickly so many more commercial and residential developments were eating up the land. It was relentless, it was massive and if you ever need to get a sense of the population explosion that is happening in India then Chennai is one of the best places to go. All you have to do is start off from the centre of town, head south and observe how far down the coast the city has now spread itself and how it shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Just like the last time when I made the journey I struck lucky with the driver I had. He was a man of few words who just got on with the job of taking me to my chosen destination rather than try to spin off in different directions in the vain hope of making a quick buck by taking me to those showrooms where dismal collections of either carpets or shawls would have been laid out before me. Really does save on a hell of a lot of hassle and means that you can more or less sit back and relax, I say more or less because of course there are still the perils of Indian highway life to contend with which can at times be more than a bit hair raising. It was pretty much the same route as we took before, taking what I guessed was the main road south to the cities of Tiruchirappalli and Madurai before making a right turn after a couple of hours and onto a road which took us straight to Tiruvannamalai. Apart from making one stop at a roadside cafe for an excellent glass of chai the journey was fast, direct and conducted in almost total silence which suited me just fine, more than fine as a matter of fact.
The closer we got to the holy temple town of Tiruvannamalai the more the landscape became dotted with ranges of strange looking hills which rose like boulder islands from out of the hot plains and fields of Tamil Nadu. It was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the hill lying down the road was going to be the holy hill of Arunachala which sat above Tiruvannamalai, but of course it wasn’t, instead being just another nameless collection of rocks. That was OK, in fact it was exactly how I was expecting it to be and I enjoyed drifting off into those false sun soaked imaginings from out of my own silence sat on the back seat of my taxi.
Naturally enough when we eventually did get to Tiruvannamalai things soon became pretty familiar again as everything fell into place just like before with the shape of the holy hill overlooking the town being completely and utterly unmistakable. By the time my taxi swung through the gates of Ramanasramam it was just gone 2 in the afternoon which meant my estimated time of arrival had been pretty much spot on. After paying off the driver I went straight to the ashram reception office but not before removing my shoes and leaving my rucksack on the veranda outside. Once inside the office I waited to give my booking details and hand over my passport for safe keeping before collecting the keys to my room. I had made my request to stay at the ashram over four months ago by way of sending the ashram office an email and they had confirmed their acceptance of my request almost straight away. I had brought along a printed sheet with the email confirmation which I handed over when the man behind the desk was free to attend to me. Nothing much seemed to have changed in the four years since I had last been in that office, same people as before, same procedure and just like the first time all went smoothly. It felt good to be back.
Article image taken by the writer.