Mahabalipuram was swarming with kindred souls. The indefatigable old & ageing from around the world, fleeing the winter chill to spend time where their pensions could afford. Some here for 3-6 months. Living carefree. Eating, drinking, sleeping. Doing their own thing. Connecting with strangers in the many cafes about town. Several, returning year after year. Some married to locals – fishermen mostly – financially empowering & settling them in vocations of their choice.
Germans – erudite ones – outnumbered all. A 75+ lady who took pride in her ability to speak the worlds oldest language. A 70 something Croatian, a wanderer who spoke 9 international languages but insisted upon conversing only in Hindi. Frequent visitors all.
The streets are full of trendy tailors, art studios (one boasting a herb garden) & multi cuisine restaurants. There is the ubiquitous ‘German Bakery,’ that is to be found everywhere. Also ‘Nautilus’ for authentic French, ‘The Sea Rock’ – sea food on the beach, ‘Mamalla Heritage’ – local vegetarian & ‘Ice & Spice’ for everything nice.
Not being a morning person, getting up early wasn’t easy but it had to be done. At least once. This being the East coast. The sun rising on the horizon, its first rays over the Bay of Bengal, touching the pinnacles of the Shore temples & giving the sky a luminous glow. It had to be seen – experienced.
It did not disappoint. What did was the crowded, strewn & littered beach. What kind of thinking makes people do this? The same, repeated everywhere down the coast. From Cuddalore to Poompuhar & Velankanni. Sandy beaches buried in litter.
Despite the downside Mahabalipuram exuded charm. It was the season around Pongal when the outdoor dance festival is on. Within the temple complex each evening – Folk, Kuchipudi & Bharatnatyam ( entry free). The ticket to the Heritage Site is otherwise Rs 40 – valid for the day. A 6 Sq Km area it has 2 exquisite Shore temples ( 8th century, sandstone, Pallavas) and Rock sculptures (bas relief).
Researching Tamil Nadu, ‘Quora’ was an important source for sundry tit bits of information. What rattled most was the kind of questions it posed. Yes, there is pride in everything Tamil. Rightly so. But nothing to suggest a desire to break away, as ‘Quora’ would like us to think. More intriguing I thought was the Cine Star – Politician connect. Also, why Tamil politicians wear dark glasses – 24×7?
Coromondal. The word opens a thousand and one vistas, conjuring images of unheard places where the ‘firangi’ first landed. In search of fame & fortune – it wasn’t only the British, French, Portuguese or Dutch as one believed but the Danes & Swedes as well. There actually was a Danish & a Swedish East India Company. But, winner takes it all. The British stayed.
The silver beaches of Mahabalipuram, Auroville,Pondicherry. Velankanni, a place of undying hope & faith. Chettinadutoo – Not strictly Coromondal but close enough, as was Tanjore, Trichy, Madurai & Rameshwaram. Each with a narrative of its own. And since it was the Delhi winter one was evading there could be no half measures. A full month’s sojourn, no less.
I took the ECR (East Coast Road) that runs from Chennai to Kanyakumari, doing the Mahabalipuram stretch in 90 minutes. The distance is 57 kms but exiting Chennai takes a while. A fairly decent highway, it would have been more scenic if it was closer to the coast. Except for a mile or so near Pondicherry, it is almost 10-15 kms in the interior. Without exciting ocean views either.
Pondicherry to Velankanni – 162 kms/3.30 hrs – made interesting by stoppages, at fortunately still surviving relics of history: The ruins of Fort St David Cuddalore, Parangipettai (Portuguese) & the well documented Danish fort – museum at Tranquebar.
An otherwise nondescript town, Chidambaram, that boasts the one & only Nataraja temple, definitely merited a halt. It was luckily along the way & I was able to get there before it closed for ‘darshan’ (between 12 noon & 4.30pm).
Slightly off track, Poompuhar is the coastal town – short of Nagapattinam – that lends its name to the many Tamil Nadu State Emporiums across the country. Famous for its sculptures, arts & crafts it is also known as Kaveripattam – the spot where the Kaveri enters the sea. There is a lighthouse, museum, temple & a shamefully littered beach.
An easy ride overall, the ECR transports from dull to scenic, rural to urban, ugly urban often taking over to become a traffic crawl.
Forays into the interior, Kanchi – Tanjore – Trichy – Karaikudi – Madurai, not only helped break tedium but provided invaluable insights. It was mid January, around Pongal. After eight prolonged years of drought the countryside was once again green & alive. The general landscape – low, dark, distant hills with palm trees dotting fields of sugarcane & paddy. The fields stretched in shades of brown – yellow – green, village ponds & water bodies nestling migratory birds. Markets too were plentiful – sugarcane, turmeric, rice, bananas etc
It got tawny & dry further south. Nothing to write home about, can’t imagine what the Karaikudi – Madurai stretch would be like in summer. Madurai to Rameshwaram eases out once again. Nearer the sea especially where it is all palms, fronds, backwaters, paddy & sea.
There was poverty too. A harsh reality. Mud huts & thatched roofs which I thought a thing of the past. The only difference being a motorbike at the door. Or a dish antenna on the roof.
The long skirt – half sari, special to this region is not to be seen any more. It has all but disappeared from Kerala & Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu also most appear to have switched to ‘Punjabi,’ the traditional visible in old photographs inside antique shops only. The other surprise was the near absence of ‘filter’ coffee in outlets along the highway. Hope it is not on the way out too. That would be a tragedy. Food, thankfully remains the one constant. The ‘Adyars’ & ‘Saravanas’, great levelers, serving affordable, authentic meals in an egalitarian setting.
Tamil Nadu has its own version of the national 3 language policy where Hindi is ‘not’ taught at all. Before anyone begins to howl, kindly remember the formula in the original & you will know who back tracked first. If it’s any consolation, the anti Hindi wall is somewhat breached, with words such as – ‘accha, na, haan, thik hai, kyon’ in common circulation.
A roller coaster that was far from easy, the one big takeaway was the joy of knowing it was (in many ways) a perfect ‘solo’. Meaning that I made friends & found companions along the way. Fellow travelers I could hang out with when I pleased. Who left me to my own devices otherwise. Respect for time & space being, as always, a true base for relationships.
Some pertinent questions at the end. Based on general observation. No offence meant. Even if I sound like a rank outsider.