A wry view of life for the world-weary

Spice ‘n’ Water – Part Twelve


Are you being served?

Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum for short) is the capital of Kerala and on the last full day of our holiday we decided to give it the once over. The undoubted highlight was the Padmanabhaswamy temple whose frontage was stunning. Alas, the interior is not open to non Hindus but we were able to wander around the exterior unhindered. En route to the temple we had passed many gaudily decorated vehicles carrying pilgrims and at the temple we felt distinctly overdressed as devotees padded around in just a sarong.

Although much of what you see today dates back to the 18th century  and Raja Marthanda Varma, a number of Hindu texts dating from 500BCE to 300CE have reference to the temple and imply that it was a wealthy institution even then – it is reputedly the richest Hindu temple today. It is composed of 12,008 salagrams or sacred stones brought by elephant from Nepal and is ornately carved. The image of Vishnu to whom the temple is dedicated and who, if legend is to be believed, founded it, is coated with a special form of stucco made from ayurvedic recipes, called katusarkara yogam. The temple was mightily impressive in its size and the intricacy of the carvings.

To approach the temple you walked down a road with the enormous water tank or reservoir on the right in which pilgrims and the devout carried out their ablutions and on the left the Puttan Malika Palace which was a fine wooden structure with a clock which tells the right time twice a day. Alas, it being a Monday all public places are closed and so we were unable to see the exhibits of the museum or, indeed, the fine features of what was clearly a richly adorned building.

We drove past various government buildings including the parliament where there were still demonstrators venting their fury at the recent budget and by some hi-tech buildings which housed Kerala’s IT industries and the Malayalam language film industry. We were then asked if we wanted to visit a bazaar and thinking it would be a street market we agreed.


One of the (many) nadirs of British comedy was Are You Being Served which traded on a mix of institutionalised homophobia and the British appetite for double entendres. Well, Pothys, where we were taken, is the epitome of Grace Brothers. There was something vaguely reassuring about getting into a wheezy old lift which told you what delights you could find on each floor – women’s lingerie on the first floor, sarees on the second etc. Once out on the shop floor the first thing that struck me was just how many staff there were. On one half floor I counted over thirty. They were clearly on commission because as soon as you showed a scintilla of interest in anything they pounced on you. The patience of one poor chap who had to fish out myriad sandals for TOWT to try could only be explained by the commission he earned from the three pairs eventually purchased.

Paying was an experience. What the Brits gave to the Indians was a love of bureaucracy and at Pothys it was taken to a ludicrous extreme. A chit was made out detailing your purchase and we, the sales assistant and goods were marched over to a long counter where the goods were checked against the chit. They were then sent to another part of the line and wrapped. The chit was entered into a ledger and then and only then where you asked to pay. One chap took the money and another dispensed the change and a further chap handed you your goods. By this time not only had I lost the will to live but I had no idea whether the package I had contained the goods I purchased. A bit like Argos I suppose.

Still, judging by the number of ETs I saw at Trivandrum airport with their green Pothys – ayalam of silks bags – it must work. But a street bazaar it was not!


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