Rameshwaram

Meenakshi Amman, Madurai

The train halted in the middle of the night. To my surprise it was Madurai. Not my destination. I got off nevertheless. On a whim, just like that & spent the next 48 hours frequenting ‘Meenakshi Amman’, overwhelmed by the architecture, beauty & ambience. Her memory undimmed all these years.

Madurai. Repaving work around the temple

In Madurai once again, the city looked unchanged. On the face of it at least. More traffic & crowds but tight security. The queue at entry points long & serpentine, reaching the Sanctum Sanctorum takes anything from 2 – 3 hours. This on a normal day. A measure of the change in four decades. As beautiful & resplendent as ever, there were no to & fro trips this time. Just a ‘quick’ darshan of the Fish Eyed One, then off to Rameshwaram.

Agni Teertham
Lands End Dhanushkodi
Rama Padam, Rameshwaram

Driving by the clean & open countryside was a welcome change. Soothing palms, fronds & paddy fields that kept increasing closer to the sea. Rameshwaram too had changed – but slightly. It was larger, dustier and smelt old – as always. An ancient town, the Ramanathaswamy temple is at its heart. Another marvel of architecture, it would have been wonderful to capture the perfect symmetry & alignment of the sculptured pillars but photography is not allowed. Just as it is not in Meenakshi.

The town is said to have 62 water bodies/tanks/wells or teerthams as they are called. 22 within the temple complex itself – water being an essential of ritual.

Less than 5 kms away is another smaller temple, purported to have the footprints of Lord Ram. 25 steps up the ‘Rama Padam’ plus another 20 to the terrace & you have a perfect birds eye view of the town – the Ramanathaswamy towering in the distance.

I asked a wandering sadhu about the footprints. I thought them too small. He laughed, calling it artistic imagination. License. But seriously …… Coming from a sadhu? “If this is how He is remembered so be it. ‘Ram ka naam‘ kept alive, whatever the way. It hardly matters”

25 kms away lies Dhanushkodi, a fishing village that the Tsunami all but wiped out. Marked by a pillar with an Ashoka emblem, it is Lands End. Beyond the Gulf of Mannar lies Sri Lanka, 8 kms as the crow flies. And connecting the two is what used to be Adams Bridge. Today’s Ram Setu, visible from land & air. A narrow sandbar, Dhanushkodi has sea on either side, the waters of the Indian Ocean & Bay of Bengal mingling here. There is an old church that survived the tsunami, a post office & a police post. The one hour trip costs Rs 1500 by taxi & Rs 60 by bus – buses available every half hour. The parking is about 500 metres short, one has to walk up to Lands End.

It was lovely at last to find a clean, un-littered beach & stray cattle that did not feed on plastic. I actually saw a cow searching for edibles inside a polythene bag. And junking it thereafter. The result of properly feeding animals I suppose – a common practice in these parts.

Ex President Kalams’ house-turned-memorial is a prominent landmark. Rameshwaram remember, is where he was born & brought up. The common mans’ perception of him therefore, telling & revealing. Said without any pride but great regret & repeated over & over again was the lament that the President had done no one, including himself any favours. “He did nothing for his family. Could have given them good jobs at least…….”

Tch Tch…… Indians!

Pamban bridge
Dhanushkodi
From atop the Rama Padam
Dhanushkodi: Remnants of the church

Chettinadu

Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.

Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a Tamil Nadu map. It is the area around it. 72 villages, Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.

First impressions count. Driving in, the countryside is lush green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however which catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramics – pottery of exquisite shape & design are still in use. 

Karaikudi’s antique market at Muneeswaran Kovil has 17 shops stocked with a variety of interesting bric-a-brac. Cultural & household items of everyday use from down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around, happily enjoying it all.

The region is known for its cotton handlooms as much as its cuisine. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari especially. A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu with traditional design.

More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine popular all over India. I had the most delectable chicken kurma – ragi roti combo. It was out of the world. Also because the chicken was not a broiler.

Most people visit to see heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built themselves stately mansions, furnished with the best from around the world. Unlike palaces elsewhere built with public funds, these were built with their own hard earned money.

Kanadukathan, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Karaikkudi, has ‘Annamall’ a Chettinad palace that you can admire from the outside. There are others one can enter paying a small fee. ‘Aayiram Jannal Veedu,’ the house with a thousand windows. Or ‘Periya Veedu’ on a one acre plot. It has a hundred rooms.

Village Athangudi had several. Also a factory making hand made tiles with local material – cement, sand & glass.

Built on several acres, nobody today lives in these mansions. They are empty palaces showcasing opulence of a rare kind: Belgian glass chandeliers, Carara marble, ivory & teak from Burma, Japanese & Portuguese tiles.

Not only are the Chettiars ultra rich, they are also great philanthropists. It was therefore heart breaking to find a wretchedly poor family where a twelve year old has had to drop out of school in order to look after a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.

Hand made Tiles
Teak-Ivory pillars
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A thing of beauty
Portuguese Tiles
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12 year old Selvimari

Velankanni

Kolam

I came seeking ‘Our Lady of Good Health’ blessings, curious about the Basilica too.

A pilgrim town of repute, Velankanni has 5 other churches, a temple & a dargah. It is 162 kms, a 3.30 hour drive from Pondicherry. Down the coast, past several historic towns – Cuddalore, Parangipettai, Chidambaram, Poompuhar, Tranquebar –

The place itself is dusty & unremarkable. The beach lovely but – you guessed it – littered. The same old story. The dust & heat kept one indoors throughout the day. Lucky therefore to have found a nice place to stay. The big plus being the leisure of food, rest, sleep & time to enjoy & finish a good read – Taran Khan’s travelogue on Afghanistan.

One ventured out in the cool of the evening but there still was no place to go. Wandering around I chanced upon a village, a panchayat block rather, with thatched huts, clean, paved roads & a river running by. Making for a pretty picture & one-to-one interaction. Language no bar, for in the end, people are people. I was invited into their homes with shy smiles & ‘vanakams

Velankanni is nicely located for a quick dash across to Tanjore & Trichy. Enroute, Vadalur lake had water to the brim & was host to a variety of migratory birds. Tanjore is an absolute must. The grand & impressive Brihadeeswara fort temple is early 11 century, Chola. It has little Nandis atop ramparts and murals on the outer corridors.

I thought the 7 tiered bell tower, topped with a clock, impressive too. This, at the Tanjore palace.

Trichy, next door, also has its ‘must sees’. There is the famous church of course. As well as the Rock Fort Ganesha temple. And the Kaveri – with its old & British era culverts – flowing quietly by.

I did not quite know what to make of Velankanni & the church signifying it. To put into words all that it conveys. Feelings of hope, faith & love. There certainly is an aura about the pearl like Basilica with beautiful stained glass & blue Crosses, visible from every part of town. It is the paraphernalia surrounding it that surprises & enthralls. Visited by people of all faiths, from all over it is a veritable conundrum of custom, belief & ritual. A church going westerner would be utterly flabbergasted.

One walks through milling crowds, past shops selling candles & flowers & everything else. Barbers also, for a sacrificial mundan/tonsure, should you want one. A deadly inter-religious mix that leaves one bewildered.

I visited around Pongal, a Harvest festival common to all. There were crowds in their festive best & a cauldron of Pongal cooking at the doorstep. Decorative Kolams adorned the churchyard where Prasadam was being distributed. Traditional breaking of coconuts, vermilion tilaks & a provision for special Darshan too. What looked like absolute chaos could well be a case of Hindu ethos over shadowing Christian belief or as I’d prefer to think – Indian secularism at its living best.

Strangest of all was the sight of a man blowing out candles the faithful had lit. Un-heeding to our protests & pleas. Making space for more candles perhaps. But that is hardly the way.

Brihadeeswara temple Tanjore
Trichy Church
Rock Fort Trichy
Clock Tower Tanjore
Brihadeeswara Ramparts, Tanjore

Pondicherry

Governor Dupleix

Rue petit canal

Rue Romain Rolland

On everyone’s bucket list, Pondicherry retains a colonial flavour. ‘White Town’ in particular. Despite being cheek by jowl with a sprawling metropolis that is everything Indian, ‘White Town’ stands out, like a slice of France. Therein lies its quaintness.

It is a few Sq Kms of heritage with streets parallel to the promenade & the sea. It has wide tree lined boulevards, French colonial architecture, cafes, bars & boutiques. French street names too, honouring a historic Franco-India connect. Most of its residents have dual citizenship & income from homes converted to ‘home stays’.

A quick & easy getaway, Auroville is at a distance of 16 kms. With about 40,000 people & 40 villages in the larger bio regional area, it was conceived as a utopia. An experiment in international living, health initiatives & eco systems that has succeeded in greening & reviving a traditionally parched & arid land.

Pondicherry Tourism must reconsider Arikamedu & Ranga Pillai mansion on its list of ‘sights’. A 30 minute drive, Arikamedu is a Roman era archeological site with nothing on offer. Exhibits & finds all housed in the local museum, the only structure left standing is a ruin – 17 century French.

Ranga Pillay mansion is difficult to locate. Opposite the vegetable market, locals appear never to have heard of it. A 300 year home, 8 rooms on the ground floor have Tamil features while the top 8 are architecturally French. The present occupants are 10th generation descendants of Mr Ranga Pillay, official translator to Governor Dupleix. A man of wealth & renown, a widely traveled linguist, he is said to have kept an open house. Even today entry is free & visitors welcome. A heritage home that has stone floors & Burma teak interiors, it has quite obviously seen better days. Of interest now to students of architecture alone.

Closed to vehicular traffic between 4 pm – 8 am, the Promenade is the heart, soul & lung of Pondicherry. A 2-3 km stretch, it is a bustling place with Governor Dupleix standing guard at one end & the Mahatma the other. In between lie upmarket hotels, cafes, restaurants & a WW1 memorial that commemorates Bastille & Armistice Day. A live band performs every Saturday evening. Bringing weekend cheer & nobody in a hurry to rush back home. The morning has crowds of another kind – sunrise gazers, joggers, fishing trawlers & honeymooners, photo shooting in the most hilarious of poses.

Pondicherry to me will always be its raucous crows. Those cheeky rascals finding a perch on your head to swoop down for a peck below.

That and the waves crashing endlessly against the shore.

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Rue Romain Rolland
Arikamedu: Roman era archeological site
Ranga Pillai mansion, Pondicherry

Mother tree(Banyan),Auroville

Auroville

Kanchipuram

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Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi
The Kanchi Weave
Kanchi Kadai Heritage Home. See, that’s how we lived
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Post Rains

It had rained the night before. The morning crisp & cool with a day long drizzle that was more than welcome. (The sun harsh in these parts, even in winter.)

It is a two hour drive from Mahabalipuram. Via Chengalpattu –  the countryside fresh, clean & beautiful.

An ancient town, Kanchi is known for its thousand temples, Ekambareswarar holding pride of place. Also called Shiv Kanchi, the 1500 year old temple is built around a 3000 year old mango tree under which Shiva – Parvati got married. So goes the legend. Green & tender, with several little shoots & off shoots it is obviously a case of expert grafting.

On 25 acres, the sandstone & granite structure is a stunning piece of architecture. It has the tallest gopuram (gateway/60 metres) & fascinating ‘mandapams’. The pillared corridors house 1008 lingams. With garlands & ‘tilaks’ each neatly in a row. It would be interesting to do a physical count. Not that there is any dispute or doubt.

There are temples. And temples. Each unique on its own – in South India especially. Not a temple goer, it is the architecture, more than ritual, that attracts. To find a quiet corner, to sit down & absorb. Then get up & get going, feeling completely re-energised & recharged. That’s what temple going is about.

The town is famous for Kanjeevarams. Saris every bride dreams of. It’s thriving silk weaving industry incorporates temple designs in silken weaves. The mango & tree not forgotten. Paisley motifs in subtle designs woven along the border or on the ‘pallu’. The weavers humble tribute to his antecedents – town, temple & tradition. He believes himself to be a  descendant of the celestial weaver Sage Markanda who weaved silk & cotton garments for the Gods. What he earns is another matter, a question largely unanswered.

Kanchi by itself does not impress. The town has vestiges of old homes, few & far between but attractive still. Of brick, stone & wood these are low built & have tiled, sloping roofs. Keeping in mind the tropical climate which can be described as being hot – hotter – hottest. Wood being a poor conductor it’s use here most striking. Which leaves one shuddering at the modern day monstrosities. Heritage forgotten. Tradition out for a toss.

One man alone knows its worth & has endeavoured to preserve something before all is lost. A cardiologist from Apollo, Chennai. No one lives in ‘Kanchi Kadai’ but it has a caretaker welcoming anyone who cares. For a fee of course. Rs 10 only.

See, that’s how we lived!

Kailasha Temple, Kanchipuram
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Kailasha Temple
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The Mango Tree at Ekambareswara
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Enroute. Eagle Temple on the hill top