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There’s a thing about Kochi that gives it a different feel from any other city I’ve been to in India. It has something to do with the way its parts are spread across several islands; compartmentalized bits of Indian culture.

Mall on MG Road

On the mainland lies Ernakulam, which exudes some of the metropolitan vibe of the HiTec cities of the south, such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. It’s loud, dusty, hectic, with pollution-belching traffic clogging the streets and alleys. Air-conditioned malls, many dedicated to the wedding stalwarts of silk sarees and gold jewellery, line central MG Road; new constructions arise from barren lots in the side streets and there’s not a pedestrian crossing in sight.

Unloading sulpher

Then comes Willington Island, a long, narrow strip of land half a kilometer out to sea. It houses a part of India that is central to most coastal cities, but which is usually hidden from view: the commerical port,  stockyards and warehouses, and a large naval base.

Another 500 meters across the waters lies Fort Cochin, officially part of the mainland, but with a distinct island feel. It’s the old colonial city. Narrow streets with stone buildings on either side, 16th century Portuguese churches, a Dutch cemetery, remains of the old fort, cannon in place, and plenty of facilities for the modern independent tourist: homestays, outdoor restaurants and the occasional internet cafe to complete the picture.

Fishing net

Along the northern coast gargantuan Chinese fishing nets are plunged into the water by four men crews, and at an informal fish market the daily catch is traded as fishermen motor their small crafts onto the beach. In the background, ferries ply between the half dozen main islands.

In Kochi you get to experience India in bits and pieces. It is like a thali with Ernakulam, the Fort and industrial areas served in small portions to be enjoyed one by one. Never too overwhelming, but containing everything you’d want.

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Our life on this here earth is ever so brief and transient, but once in a while mankind  succeeds in creating something that stands the test of time, that is made for all eternity so to speak. To some these works – the Gizeh pyramids, the Great Wall, Domino D-Day –  are testament to the greatness of man, to others they bear witness to his follies. The final judgment is often in the eye of the beholder.

Once in a while, though, we can all agree on something. Take the Ooty Thread Garden for instance. A certain Anthony Joseph, playing around with some ideas in his workshop, came up with a novel way of creating fake flowers by winding coloured threads around pieces of canvas. A nice hobby, one might say, quite artistic in its own right even and something that could be a nice addition to any country fair. If only he would have left it at the workshop.

But no. Anthony had bigger plans. He dreamt of greatness, threaded greatness that is.

12 years, 50 female volunteers and 60 million meters of thread later the garden was a fact. It is housed next to the Ooty lake and boat house in a ramshackle structure with disused advertising signs for a roof. Entry is gained through a small corridor, after which the threaded spectacle unfolds in all its splendor.

It’s quite the feat. Honestly, very beautifully done. But it’s hard to get over the astounding pointlessness of it all. Such an incredible amount of work to create fake flowers. The question begs. Why?

It’s obvious that I’m hopelessly opinionated about this, so to make sure that doubters such as myself are put on the correct appreciative path, they’ve installed a series of explanatory signs:

“Once seen memory will not willingly let it pale”

I’m still writing about this, so fair point.

“As an artistic creation par excellence challenging the human imagination it occupies the position of unique and innovative miracle in this era”

Alright. We’re getting somewhere. But there’s more, no?

“In all respects thread garden can be rated as highest art creation of manual effort that brought about successfully in the world”

Now we’re talking. But still, some ultimate doubters may not be convinced. Fear not, the final sign puts all to rest:

“Really. Tourists adore this millenium miracle”

And there you go. The Hindu Business Line reports that Anthony Jacobs is planning similar labours of love overseas, so soon you too may bear witness to the greatness of man.

Look on my works ye mighty and despair!

(As usual pictures will be added once I’ve uploaded them)

After spending a couple of days catching up with friends in Hyderabad, I took the night train to Hampi, the old capital of the Vijayanagar kingdom. Once a city grand enough to invite comparisons to Rome by a 16th century Portuguese traveler, these days it consists of a small dusty village,  surrounded by miles of abandoned ruins.

Hampi is an interesting place to visit. It grows on you. The first day, still groggy from the overnight journey, I wandered about the village streets. The sights were familiar: children walking by full of smiles, saying hi, sometimes asking for a pen; souvenir salesmen and ayurvedic masseurs trying to lure you into their shops; and all around the boulder strewn landscape covered in the remains of the once great temples.

After visiting the three or four most important ones – the ones recommended by the guidebooks and consequently the ones where the tour buses gather-,  I’m tired as evening falls and feel a little ruined out. How much more can one really see and appreciate?

On the second day, though, I venture out further afield and all of a sudden I’m on my own. Vast temple complexes with monkeys clambering across crumbling gopurams, even vaster market places stretching out hundreds of meters into the green grass, and there’s only myself and the occasional caretaker.

That’s the thing about Hampi. You can roam around for days discovering new places never mentioned in any guidebook and only appearing as a few dots on a local map. The ruins line all the hillsides and valleys down to the smooth flowing river that continues to provide a lifeline to local population.

They navigate the currents in what appear to be upturned two-meter wide round baskets. There are signs warning of wily crocodiles, represented in full technicolor, and deadly whirlpools, but undeterred I take a trip upriver after the boatsman rubbishes the warnings. Even here the ruins are visible. We pass temples and hermits’ caves, which disappear each year  under the roaring monsoon tides. At one stage we’re caught out by a sudden downpour, but the boat turns out the be multi-functional as we go ashore and flip it over to create a makeshift shelter.

On my last day I cycle downstream along the river passing the remains of what once was a 400 meter bridge connecting the embankments. I’m trying to get to Anegundi on the left bank, but when I get to the site of the new bridge, which was due to open only this year, I find its two middle sections collapsed in the river. The scene is quiet. A few men amble around a foursome of concrete-pouring trucks, but evidently work has stopped since the accident.

On the opposite bank a massive slab of concrete slants at a 45 degree angle into the water. An old lady uses the convenient surface for washing clothes, slapping the cloth harshly against the road surface before rinsing it out in the passing current.

And just to make sure you stay alert in such peaceful surroundings:

As I park my bicycle in front of the archaeological museum, a man sitting in the shade of the empty ticket office takes four Rs. off me and gestures me inside. A few meters in, a security guard stops me. Where’s my ticket? I try to explain I didn’t get one and go out again, but the man is gone. I buy a ticket, an actual one, from the lady who’s suddenly appeared in the office. That’s India for you.

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