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
img_6548
A thing of beauty
Portuguese Tiles
img_6556
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.

83225840_10218296985950426_52529490139545600_n
Rue Romain Rolland
Arikamedu: Roman era archeological site
Ranga Pillai mansion, Pondicherry

Mother tree(Banyan),Auroville

Auroville

Kanchipuram

img_6343-1
Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi
The Kanchi Weave
Kanchi Kadai Heritage Home. See, that’s how we lived
img_6339
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
<
img_6344
Kailasha Temple
img_6341
The Mango Tree at Ekambareswara
img_6363
Enroute. Eagle Temple on the hill top

AQI 200+ Escape. Mahabalipuram

Rock Sculptures. Bas Relief
Break of day

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?

The Shore Temples

AQI 200+ Escape. Temples & Forts

Languidly down Coromondal Coast

Shore temples, Mahabalipuram
Traditional homes. Kanchipuram

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. Chettinadu too – 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.

Why are we uncaring of heritage?

Must we litter public spaces?

What kind of thinking makes us do this?

Is it impossible to walk up to a dust bin?

Instead of shooting at it from a mile?

And…….must every morsel be broken & mashed?

When it can be picked up & eaten?

Just asking.

Ruins of Fort St David, Cuddalore
Danish Fort. Tranquebar
nataraja Temple. Chidambaram
Nataraja temple. Chidambaram