Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a map of Tamil Nadu. It is the area around it. 72 villages. Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.
First impressions always count. Driving in, the countryside looks green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however that catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramic- pottery of exquisite shape & design 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 down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around happily and enjoy it all.
The region is well known for cotton handloom. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari its specialty – A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu have traditional design.
More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine now 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 come here for its heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built stately mansions, decorated with the best from around the world. Unlike royal palaces built with public funds elsewhere, these were built with the owners 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 dropped out of school to take care of a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.
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.