Tag Archives: Tamil nadu tourism

Chettinad Part 2: Exploring Kaanadukathan- A Dreamland in the heart of Tamil Nadu

Continued from Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi

After an exhausting day exploring the streets crammed with Chettinad houses in Karaikudi, we were dropped at the bus stand to board the local bus to our next destination. The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan.

Part 2: Exploring Kaanadukathan

Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt lost upon our arrival at this village. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses gone, the only reason that had brought us there. It was evening already, and we still didn’t have a definite place to stay. Without having a clue on how to go about further on our trip, we decided to follow our instincts.

Firstly, we decided to walk till that road’s end hoping to find some hotel for our night’s stay. After a short distance, we heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’. It was a heritage property and expensive on our budget, but it was assurance that there was some place we could fall back to in the worst case of not finding a stay for the night. Having some relief, we decided to walk further down the street in our quest for both a hotel that would fit our budget or for the palatial mansions that had brought us all the way from Bangalore.

After walking further down the street, my friend and I stopped at the sight in front of us. We were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught a never-ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both sides… We were in for an unexpected shock!! We knew there were many large mansions but had never imagined a real street to look just out of a movie setting. The facades of these large villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes.

The streets of Kaanaadukathan village

This village in particular did not seem to be very tourist friendly with most of these bungalows being locked up and their owners living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents, however, have been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. Here is a summary of our pursuits of landmarks at Kaanadukathan.

CVRM house: This is one of the very few Chettinad mansions that are open for public viewing that can be visited with a small entry fee. Although, nobody lives in this house now where once lived a large and an affluent family, it is well maintained with some of its antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. kept intact to retain the grandeur of this house. While we were admiring the grand interiors, the caretaker at the mansion recognized that we were lost and offered to accommodate us at her house for the night. Well, meeting such Samaritans needs a separate post.

The CVRM house at Kaanadukathan
The CVRM house at Kaanadukathan

We started early on the following morning to make best use of the time before the sun became fully active. There were (ancient) temple visits in the day’s itinerary and a lot of walking to be done. With our host’s support, we managed to book an auto-rickshaw for the entire day and to take us around places as listed below.

The nine clan temples of Chettinad: Temples of Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples are beautiful structures dating back to the Pandya era. These architectural treasures are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. If one is a pious traveler, one may also consider visiting the temples at Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur and Mathur. Collectively, these temples represent the family deity of each of the nine major clans inhabiting around the region. After having our lunch served by donors at the Vairavanpatti temple, we headed towards our next destination

Aathangudi Palace: Fondly called as the ‘Periyaveedu’ for being the biggest house in the village, this mansion is aptly named as the Aathangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they made our jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur as we stood in the portico at its entrance. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay inside the mansion beyond 15 minutes by the caretakers. Their behavior towards visitors was somewhat a turn-off as they chased us out with verbal abuses. Forget observing the intricacies of the architecture of such a place, 15 minutes weren’t sufficient to even take a casual walk around the entire house.

Inside the Periyaveedu- The Athangudi Palace
Inside the Periyaveedu- The Athangudi Palace

There was no heed given to requests by our driver even as he tried to convince them in the local language. Pissed off with their attitude, our driver drove us off from there, towards our next destination. Before I continue ranting about our exploration of the region, I pause a bit to talk about my autorickshaw ride: The cranking lever of the vehicle had come off and was kept under our feet (in the rear seat) and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, that the vehicle needed to be push started every time we stopped, and the driver had to jump out of the slow-moving rickshaw to stop it every time we wanted to halt. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, it is natural to gain a few additional horsepower in our muscles. So, the raging ride from Aathangudi palace until our next stop was quite a thing!

Aathangudi tiles factory & wood art restoration center: This is a place where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. We observed demonstration of how these GI tagged colorful tiles are created. An art in themselves, apart from adorning all Chettinad mansions, I remember the grandeur of the Mysore and Bangalore palaces whose flooring is made with tiles sourced from Aathangudi.

Making of the Athangudi tiles

Chettinad railway station: This small and least haunted railway station on a typical traveler’s itinerary was included in our list after we had heard that the local Raja had a special waiting room for himself in the railway station. This quick and an exhausting ride ended in disappointment when we reached there. We learnt that the special room is not open to public viewing and will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.

The entrance to one of the houses at Kaanadukathan

By this time, our tummies were grumbling of hunger. In spite of having been in the land of spices for two days, our taste buds hadn’t savored authentic Chettinad cuisine yet. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food. Our craving gustatory cells were finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight at a small hotel that we found on a random lookout. Post lunch, we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot.

Local weaving centers: We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the many local weaving centers.

Chettinad Raja’s palace: The largest mansion in the whole of Chettinad is a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. And that’s why it is called as the Chettinad palace. We made futile attempts to get a small peek into the interiors of this massive dwelling space that I had seen in some of the movies.

Our walk tour of Kaanadukathan continued until dusk. We clicked some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village with the perfect lighting by the setting sun. Along with the setting sun, we set ourselves for the return journey. We had to reach Trichy on time to catch our bus back to Bangalore. Thus, concluded a weekend in Chettinad- the land of palatial mansions and piquant cuisine.

Must-dos in Chettinad:

  • Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
  • Shop for a colorful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
  • Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
  • Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan

A Tour of Indian Foundries- Investment Casting

In this post today, I like to discuss a technical subject by standing in the shoes of a traveler. During my student life, I have never been in a race to become a top-scorer. However, it was Professor Mukunda’s enthusiastic teaching method, that ‘Material science and Metallurgy’ has been one subject that I topped the department (I like to show-off a bit, with those dark glasses emoticon). With an in-hand admission letter to one of the top universities to pursue a post-graduation in the subject, the lostlander deviated along the way, only to become a professional ‘Metallurgical Failure Mode Analyst’ much later in her career. If not for Prof.Mukunda, a seed of interest in the subject would have never been sown and I wouldn’t be writing about such an unconventional travel post, it seems.

Metallurgy is a science in which India has mastered from even before the world could imagine. The Vedas have a devoted section to teach these techniques. Prof.Mukunda’s favorite topic was ‘Metal casting with the lost wax technique’. His face beamed in joy every time he mentioned the intricacies that were achieved in the metal art thus created. “No two pieces that are exact replicas of each other can ever be created”, he stressed. We had foundry visits as part of our curriculum but that’s where we could only see sand, centrifugal and other forms of metal casting. Without having easy access, investment casting, also called as the ‘lost wax technique’ of metal casting was only left to our imagination. Many years after my graduation, I have been fortunate that I have been able to visit some of the amazing and traditional foundries in my country that practice the lost wax technique. These places have got them their individual ‘GI’ tags. Here is a walk through my foundry visits which I believe I should share with my fellow readers.

Idols of Swamimalai:

Swamimalai translates to the ‘Hill of the Lord’ that is named after an important temple in Tamil culture dedicated to Lord Murugan. This little town is famous beyond just this holy abode. One doesn’t need explanation at the mention of the bronze idols of the Cholas era. Apart from several of these antiques being prized possessions at museums across the globe, these treasures are among the highly traded commodities in the black market. These are ALL brought to form in Swamimalai. It is believed that the artisans of Swamimalai are a group of skilled men called as the Stapathis who have passed on their heritage of metal idol making, since the 12th century. The precision of composition and the measurements of these metal idols, mostly bronze are followed as per the ‘Agama Shastras’. This holy land of the alchemists was a part of my weeklong backpacking with my brother, back in Year-2015.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Aranmula Kannadi
Clockwise from top left: 1. Raw material for mould making with the furnace and blower 2. The mould 3. Furnace 4. Metal sheet after moulding ready to be polished

Aranmula Kannadi:

An extremely important part of malayalee culture, this handcrafted mirror is a quintessential part of Kerala. I was told that on the day of ‘Vishu’ festival, after waking up in the morning- he/she should first see themselves in an Aranmula Kannadi placed alongside the ‘Canacona flowers and a lit oil lamp’ before anything else. ‘What is it about a mirror?’ a person unknown to the traditions of this land might ask. ‘These mirrors are not glass!’ These mirrors are super-polished metal surfaces that are capable of reflecting real images. A glass always reflects a secondary image (you can notice that there is a distance from the reflecting surface to the image formed) whereas, the metal surface reflects primary images (There is no additional distance between the object and the image).

Two images that give the comparison of reflection in a glass and a metal mirror (Aranmula kannadi)
Top: The secondary reflection in a glass mirror; Below: The primary reflection in a metal ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ mirror

These manually polished mirrors are created through investment casting whose composition remains to be a secret that is passed down through generations of just 1 family. The small group of these master craftsmen who are protecting their secret recipe of the Malayalee culture all reside around the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple in the state of Pathanamthitta. I had the esteemed opportunity of visiting one of these foundries when I sneaked out after working hours on one of my business trips in Year-2019.

Video of my visit to the mirror making foundry at Aranmula

Dokra art of Bastar:

This non-ferrous metal art is created by the forest dwelling tribes of Chhattisgarh. Historians believe that this art has evolved from what was used by the primitive tribes to create figurines of their local deities for worship and for jewellery purposes. The metals used were earlier collected directly from earth in the mineral rich area of Bastar, then smelted to separate the desired elements and mixed in intended proportions to form the final material for casting. This is an undocumented tribal technique that has been passed down through several centuries. Today, it is widely used for commercial purposes of decoration and gifting. It is now revered as a part of the tribal culture that represents the state of Chhattisgarh. I had an opportunity to visit one of these foundries and observed keenly the lifeless metal take form into art during my family’s five states’ road trip in Year-2020.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Dokra art in Bastar
Dokra art at various stages of metal casting

Kola masks of Karkala:

Talking about all these foundries, I cannot be leaving my homestate behind. Although the folk art of metal mask making is slowly dying, these masks are an extremely important part of the culture of the Tulunad region. These bell metal masks are used in the spiritual performance of the ‘Bhoota Kola‘. Today, the art is used beyond mask making and can be seen in idols, lamps, bowls, utensils among other things used and sold extensively in Udupi district of Karnataka.

The lamps and idols of Nagamangala:

The contribution of the Hoysalas to the art and heritage of Karnataka cannot be justified with any number of words. Their intricacies and detailing in their work can be seen not only in the stone sculptures of their temples but also in their metal crafts. A few of the practitioners of the Hoysala style of metal casting have saved and passed on their knowledge to a few artisans who have made the town of Nagamangala their home. This thriving art can be seen in the traditional bronze lamps widely used across Karnataka and in the idols of various deities in this region. Although bronze is believed to be a godly material, other metals like tin, copper etc. too are cast into various articles using this technique.

This post is my small attempt towards promoting local art. I look forward to influence at least a few of my readers to learn more about the rich heritage of India and encourage local artisans in various ways possible. Do share your thoughts with me through the comments below.

As the Neelakurinji blossoms, the Nilgiris spectacles

Heard of the blue hills? Does the name ‘Nilgiris’ strike any bell? For those who know less, it is a part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World heritage site in the southern peninsula of India. The ‘Neel-giris’ literally translates to ‘Blue-Hills’ because these hills get their colour from a particular phenomenon. A particular species of the Strobilanthes kunthiana flowers, locally called the Neela-Kurinji bloom once in twelve years. When in full bloom, the entire hill range looks blue, thus giving the hills their name. The last mass-flowering of the neelakurinji flowers happened in 2018 and I left no leaf unturned to witness this spectacle. There were a couple of hotspots identified by the Kerala forest department where arrangements were made to allow visitors to see the flowers.
My friends and I decided to visit the Eravikulam National park, located close to Munnar. This stretch of the hills was where most of the blossoms were supposed to happen. After finalizing the visit dates in Sept’18, the Delhi friends had booked their flight tickets to fly down and the remaining of us booked our bus tickets from Bangalore to Munnar. I had got all the necessary entry permits from the forest authorities and booked accommodation in Munnar for all of us. All this was done months in advance to have a confirmed entry anticipating the tourist influx for such a spectacle, if we waited until later. We were all set and waiting for the travel to finally happen.

Come July’18, the rain gods had wreaked havoc in the western Ghats. The entire stretch of western Ghats in Karnataka and Kerala had been damaged by the heaviest rains in eight decades. The damage done was massive to geography, property and life along these areas. In the event of things, damage was done even to the neelakurinji plants and the blossoms were feared to be washed out. Once the rain gods had calmed down and the ground situation of floods seemed to have receded, we waited to see if there was any luck in waiting until September. We were in constant touch with a few locals who gave us the updates on the status of the blue hills. Come September and we decided to go ahead with our original plan. We all had finally arrived at Munnar and were heading towards Eravikulam National Park.

Once there, Yes, there were enough plants destroyed. The stronger few, had managed to bear flowers. We walked along the laden path, feeling grateful for at least so many of the plants had survived. Since these plants blossom only once every 12 years, it means that their reproduction cycle is longer than usual. This also means that, most of the Neelakurinji vegetation is lost in the 2018 monsoon and the next flowering cycle of the year 2030 may not happen at a mass-scale as it is usually supposed to happen at all!! Anyway, we enjoyed whatever we were witnessing.

img_20200216_1230514763208106210940115.jpg
The Neelakurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

Also, Neelakurinji is only a sub-species of the larger group of flowers called the Kurinji. The Kurinji flowers come in several colors- white, peach, purple, etc. Here is a collection of the Kurinji flowers from Eravikulam National park that we saw during our visit.

img_20200216_1232387674453963735820057.jpg
The various Kurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

So that said, I was back in my hometown the following week and visited our piece of farmland to check on its status after the monsoon. It used to be a spice plantation that remained unmaintained for a long time before we, siblings ventured into developing it. our farm is a short walk away from the main road. When we arrived there and decided to walk, the entire path was filled with what seemed like some weed that had overgrown during the monsoon. We used a machete to make way for ourselves to walk further. Just a few steps into the area, we were surrounded with pink/ maroon flowers all around us. ‘These weeds had flowered expansively’, we wondered. We took a lot of photos, made way for ourselves, finished our work and returned home. When we discussed about the weeds with the elders in the family, we were surprised to hear that these plants also belonged to the Kurinji family.

img_20200216_1228147702483363187051058.jpg
The Kurinji flowers from our farm in Kodagu

Further, an important month in the Kodava and the Tamil calendar is the month of Kakkada or Aadi. In Kodagu, on the 18th day of this month a special dish is prepared using a locally available herb. Its juice is believed to contain 18 medicinal values. It leaves a very deep blue/violet pigment when cooked and consumed only on this day. And what is this plant called? Don’t even guess… Locally called ‘Maddh thoppu’ or ‘Aadi soppu’, it is also a variety of Kurunji.
So, Kodagu primarily has three types of Kurinji; the flowering weed(Maley Kurinji(as in hill), Etth Kurinji(as in cattle) and Maddh Kurinji(as in medicine).
A little bit of googling allowed me learn that there are many sub-species of the Kurinji and each have their own flowering cycles. While some bloom annually, some bloom once in six years and some take a couple of decades. Neelakurinji was just one among them.

Lesson learnt: How often do we tend to ignore the little things from our own backyard? We think these are too trivial to spend time and look for things elsewhere. It is often that people associate that better things come only when money is spent and distances are travelled, but the truth may be that it is something that we have been conveniently ignoring in our own vicinity.
What is your take on this thought?

A festival to Raid the graveyard- Mayana Kollai

Come the night of Mahashivaratri, there will be festivities across the country. People stay up all night and participate in bhajans, pooja offerings, chariot pulling etc. all to keep themselves awake for the night, so that their beloved Lord, Shiva gets good rest after taking care of them all year. But it is the day that follows the revered night, that is the essence to this story of mine. The day that follows Mahashivaratri is when Shakthi, the consort of Shiva and thus, the female power is celebrated across the Northern part of Tamil Nadu. The companionship of Mother Angalamman to Shiva, the graveyard dweller is celebrated with a festival called the ‘Mayana Kollai’. As a friend explains, Mayana Kollai translates to the ‘Raid of the graveyard’ in Tamil. I had planned to witness this festival at one such temple dedicated to Angalamman, closer home, at Kaveripattinam.

The festivities had started as early as the sunrise at the Angalamman temple, with the Goddess being taken on a temple car/ chariot. She is supposed to travel along the streets of the town, to the graveyard by evening from where she returns to the temple by night. All other rituals that are part of this journey of her’s are what make this festival more interesting. It is a festival where the entire town / village participates with no barrier of caste or societal status. The chariot leaves the temple with the idol of Angalamman.

20200222_1339022711065229733285812.jpg
The diety- Angalamman being taken on a procession on the temple car / chariot

She is greeted by devotees who throw a mixture of salt crystals and black pepper or beans all along her way. She is hailed as a symbol of fertility who is calm throughout the year and takes on her powerful form on this day, once in a year. The villagers get their body pierced with various things near the temple premises and walk across the village to the graveyard, where the piercings are removed. This body paining is what they believe, is a gratitude to the almighty for the wishes that have come true or as a part of a prayer that needs to be fulfilled. The size and things pierced can vary depending on individual’s prayers. While those with tridents pierced around their mouth are a very common sight, the more pious go further to get their torso pierced with hundreds of lemons. Yet, a few pull cars, buses, trucks or large stones with ropes that are hooked through their bare skin.

20200222_1103493355118405534738936.jpg
Stones being readied to be hooked to the body as a man with a trident pierced to his cheeks walks past

If u peek into one of the many shops (I don’t know if that is the correct noun for such places) around the town, apart from those getting the body piercings, you will find another set of people. Men and children will be getting their faces painted and dressed up in sarees, a representation of Angalamman. With metal arms attached to the backs, elaborate costumes, jewelry and crown worn, Angalamman is impersonated by these people. They hold tridents and dance to the beats of drums across the streets. Several times on their way, they get possessed or get into a state of trance, until they all finally congregate at the graveyard. Animal sacrifice too is a common sight on the streets on this day.

img_20200228_1030393231357977862522692.jpg
Stalls where the body piercings and paintings will be done

It is evening by the time the temple car and everyone else reaches the graveyard. That is when the most interesting part of the rituals takes place. The folk impersonating the goddess gather around a random grave and dig it up. The bones from the grave are pulled out and chewed by them. This is called the ‘bone chewing’ ritual or what gives the festival its name: Mayana Kollai or the ‘Raid of the graveyard’.

20200228_104051-01534021689575161698.jpeg
Men and kids dressed up like Angalamman

There are several legends and references that explain the significance of this ritual, depending on the region. Here are some of the references I found on the internet.

  1. The significance of the costume (Click here to read further)
  2. The significance of the Bone chewing ritual (Click here to read further)

Post this ritual, the goddess calms down and returns to the temple on the temple car. The festival culminates when the it reaches its home.

While witnessing all this self-violence, I started to deeply think, why this is necessary to please the gods. Although I couldn’t find a convincing conclusion, what I realized is that this form of ritual is not unique to Hinduism alone. It has been largely practiced worldwide, across all major religions. Some of the closest references are:

Whichever faith be it and whatever the belief, the intentions of every person involved is the same. To get closer to god. Aren’t all our beliefs connected?

Natural wonders of South India – My favourites

India has intrigued the world with its history, geography and culture- each individually dating back to several ages ago. I have been no different from the rest of the world. The LostLander has begun to embrace her landings after getting lost at random places in her incredible country. The more she is exploring her country, the more she has been discovering about its descendance and getting mind blown with new discoveries each time.

“The history of India’s physical geography is older than that of its civilization or even that of the human race. The subcontinent has been a distinct geological entity for millions of years. Therefore, to understand India, we must go back to the very beginning.”

-Sanjeev Sanyal

The fact that it is called as a subcontinent is associated to a larger theory of it being separated out of a supercontinent called ‘Rodinia’ and drifting apart from Africa, Antarctica and then Madagascar before it struck with the Asian continent. No, I’m not time traveling that far for now! It was just to put an exclamation to how amazing this country’s geography has evolved to be and what the natural bounty as we called it, has to offer in this beautiful country to an explorer… To take my article forward and with no biases, I divide the geography of this subcontinent into North and the South, just by drawing an imaginary line passing through its center, Seoni in Madhya Pradesh. Here is a humble attempt to take my readers through some of the beautiful destinations I have been to enjoy the natural marvels of Southern India. They are in random order and listed as and when I recollected them. For more details, you need to read my individual posts on them by clicking on their respective tags!

1. Kurusudai islands: Nestled off the coast of Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar, it is the only place in the world where the oldest and the last surviving living fossil is found in the world.

2. The table tops of Maharashtra: Be it the beautifully painted pink valleys of the Khas plateau, valleys of Matheran, Mahabaleshwar or any place thought of for a scenic drive for the Mumbaikars- have all formed out of large volcanic eruptions as the subcontinent merged with Asia. Not just that, these geographical features were strategically used by Shivaji to stop the invasion by the Mughals and hence called the Deccan traps.

3. Limestone caves of Andhra Pradesh: Belum caves, a part of a larger cave complex in the Erramalai region is the largest and longest cave system that is open to public. Similarly, the Borra caves is the deepest in the country. The speleothem formations are worth a visit which have formed due to continuous flowing of water over a thousand years, easily dating back to the Archaean age.

4. Gandikota: People call it as the ‘Grand Canyon of India. It is a beautiful gorge formed by the Pennar river as it squeezes from between the rock formation that has played witness to several kingdoms in history.

5. Eastern Ghats: Although I use a very generic term that specifies an entire region, they are older and mineral rich than their popular counterparts on the western side. All, again a resultant of several tectonic activities in the event of formation of the Indian mass.

6. Dhanushkodi: This abandoned town has more than just history of a cyclone. The revered ‘RamaSethu’ or the Adam’s bridge was formerly considered to be the largest Tombolo in the world and is believed to have formed due to the drifting of India and the Lankan land masses several thousand years ago..

Well… If all these have been the outcomes of several tectonic activities of the earth over a million years, there are yet several other amazing things that nature has to offer in the Southern peninsula.

7. Have you been to Wayanad in Northern Kerala? There is a heart shaped lake after a good climb up the Chembra peak in the western Ghats. It’s the nature’s way of telling ‘I Love You’!

8. Heard of the Barren island? It is the only active volcano in India, with the most recent eruption being in 2017. The sea area around it is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world!

9. And then there is Baratang islands- It is the only mud volcano in India, situated in the Andaman group of islands.

10. Have you seen the Purple hills? Where do you think the Nilgiri hills in the western Ghats derive their name from? They’re so called because these green verdant hills are painted blue/purple (Neela in Hindi) by the Neelakurinji flowers, something that blooms only once in twelve years. The latest mass-blossoming being in 2018.

11. Cruised through the canals of Kuttanad? Mostly popular among the honeymooners and families alike for its backwaters and houseboats, what many don’t know about this region is that it is the only region in the world where paddy farming is done below sea level.

12. How about a boat ride in the Mangrove forests of the Bay of Bengal? The Sundarbans and Pichavaram forests are the first and the second largest mangrove marshlands in the world. A world heritage site that they are, an extremely important part of the ecology.

13. What happens when a meteor hits the earth? A massive crater is formed giving form to Lonar lake in Maharashtra. This Geo-heritage monument saline soda lake is the only high velocity impact crater lake on earth.

14. Seen the waterfalls of the Deccan plateau? Be it the Chitrakoot falls in Chhattisgarh, Gokak falls in Karnataka, Athirapally in Kerala or Hogeynakal in Tamil Nadu… They’re all so good they can give a good competition to the Niagara!

15. Heard of the Sentinelese tribesmen in the Andaman sea? They’ve long avoided contact with the outside world and their gene pool is believed to be one of the crucial links to early man and the evolution of mankind on the planet.

What India has to offer is abundant! And these are only a few places that I have been to in the southern India. Do you have any recommendations? Have I missed out on anything? I would LOVE to know… Please drop n your suggestions, recommendations, feedback in the comments section below 😊

My hotel nightmares in India.

The long list of places I’ve travelled to and stayed at have given me a new insight to life and a new outlook at seeing life through.. The journeys have been enriching and the stays have added a new dimension to the travel. From five-star luxury to shoe-string budget hostels- I’ve stayed there all. While the pleasant ones were many, there is its own share of hopelessly aweful places. So here are a few ghastly and horrendous stays I have opted for during the course of my Indian discovery.

1. It being a pleasant season in the holy town of Rameshwaram, we had checked into a decent non-AC lodge at noon. After freshening up, we went out for sightseeing and returned to our room post dinner. We unpacked all our girly goods and let most of our wet lingerie strewn out for drying. It was around mid-night and I was just about to fall asleep and my friend Madhu screamed out loud. HECK! I jumped out asking what had happened. She switched the light on and started to pick up 1,2,3.. Bedbugs! She was allergic to them and the rashes had spread across her body. We spoke to the hotel manager and he arranged for an alternate room which he claimed would be good due to A/C facility. While we moved in our luggage and shut the doors, my friend lifted the bed to just reconfirm that everything was alright. Alas! More bedbugs were partying around the hemline.. We ran to the reception and asked them to give a permanent solution. They somehow managed to arrange a room in a nearby hotel after having themselves confirmed the room quality. So the next thing we were found doing was- Two girls walking the empty streets of Rameshwaram at well past midnight with half zipped backpacks, untied shoes in our feet, wet lingerie hanging out of the luggage, random plastic bags on both hands and anxious faces searching for a place to spend the night.. It was almost dawn by the time we settled down in the alternate accommodation provided.

2. We can’t blame anyone for this one- there was nothing else for us to expect while being stranded in the middle of a winter trek and the night temperature at 25 below zero!! We were at Leh town in Ladakh. No plumbing would work in that part of the world in that season for obvious reasons. We found ourselves in a homestay where we had to fetch water to do our daily chores. We had to break through the frozen layer of ice just so, that we could get half a bucket of hot (warm) water from the bottom of the same drum placed on fire. The bathroom waste was collected in containers which would overflow now and then making us want to throw-up very often.

3. The overly broken plumbing of the Chidambaram lodge is something that tops the list. It was a place that changed my mind to cutting-short my week long trip on just the 2nd day and making me want to go back home ASAP.. As if the stench from the nearby gutter, the smell of alcohol from the adjacent rooms and the super dirty bed covers weren’t enough, the washroom was moss covered and the faucet rusted as if it would break if operated… And to top it all, We stepped on someone’s barf that was spewed up on the stairs.. YUCK!! This has really given me strong reasons to have apprehensions towards online hotel booking based on guest reviews..

4. This one was a highly recommended budget stay option at Panchgani. It used to be a school hostel until being converted to a hotel which has hosted several movie shoots in the past. After hearing positive reviews, we two girls were surprised to find that the property seemed rather deserted when we arrived there. We were the only guests and that too on a weekend.. Although the room seemed decent for the tariff quoted, we still had some apprehensions for being the only people and our safety.. Just when we were in the process of decision making, both our eyes were caught by some strange thing just a little outside our hostel room.. Some white fur like stuff hung out of a large boiler sort of an equipment. We kind of panicked and asked the warden what that was. He told us it was a water boiler and the hard water had deposited along with some insulating material on the top. It definitely looked strange and scary. We did feel that it was a dog inside the boiler and it was their long furry tail hanging out of the barrel.. If it was our imagination, it is so not possible that both of us had the same thought.. We stared at each other and rushed out of the place without any further discussion..

5. So after a nightmare-ish pursuit of an accommodation, we finally checked into a hotel that evening at Panchgani. Everything was fine until my friend came out running from the bathroom. When asked what happened, she anxiously pointed out at the bucket placed under a running tap with a blood red liquid! The bucket was half full already with what seemed like blood.. I ran down to the reception and they came upstairs to check for facts from our bathroom :p They realized that it was rust particles from the overhead metal tank and pipes due to hardwater being constantly heated. We were somehow convinced with the explanation given, but I had no courage to continue to bathe in that water. However, to our rescue the water from other taps seemed to have a normal colour and we completed our basic chores…!!

Summary:

Do not suggest hotels, places and dishes/food to anybody. The choices and preferences vary from each person based on their character, mood, budget etc. Avoid being blamed later!

Chettinad Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi- The Land of Palatial Mansions and Piquant Cuisine

Under the influence of watching Tamil movies, my friend and I had sufficiently heard about the mansions of Chettinad. Further, our curiosity was piqued when we heard stories about how rich a land this region had been around a century ago, how the native people were involved in a lot of trade between Chettinad and Burma (present Myanmar). There is a Tamil settlement in modern day Myanmar consisting mainly Chettiars who decided to settle there. Burma Teak is still a word that is abundantly used for those familiar with timber and carpentry, primarily adorning these mansions of Chettinad. With that, we wanted to visit this region over a weekend and worked on our google research to set our travel plan.

The native community inhabiting Chettinad are the Chettiars. Well-educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some adjectives that are synonymous with the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over two districts of Shivagangai and Pudukkottai. Since we couldn’t be driving down, our usual resort for commutation was public transportation. Given that we had only a weekend’s time in hand, we wanted to plan our itinerary well and be able to make the most use of whatever time and resources we had.

The stay options on the other hand were limited to just a couple of Chettinad houses that have been converted to luxury resorts or heritage homestays. Although we wished that we could stay at one of those palatial mansions, we were restricted with our budget (we had just started to work after graduation from college). There were no budget stays anywhere in the region. So that was something we wanted to figure out after reaching there. In the worst case, we wanted to find at least a floor space where we could lay our sleeping bags.

This article is a first of the two part story about my trip to Chettinad. This post has been featured on BlogAdda’s ‘Spicy Saturday’s Picks’ column.

Our Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bengaluru (Overnight bus to Karaikudi)
Day 1: Explore Karaikudi- Koviloor, Devakottai & Pallathur (Night’s stay at Kaanadukathan)
Day 2: Explore Kaanadukathan- Aathangudi (Return to Bengaluru by overnight bus from Trichy)

The Details:

Upon reaching Karaikudi on Saturday morning, we freshened up at a nearby hotel. Our day started with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiyappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up. Meanwhile, we worked out our options of commutation as we got taking with a very friendly waiter at the hotel. We figured out that hiring an autorickshaw was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the hot summer sun would just add up to our woes. After finishing our breakfast, we struck a good deal with an autorickshaw guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping.

Part 1: Exploring Karaikudi

Ariyakudi Perumal temple: Following the plan on our list, we decided to visit the temple first as the temples in South India close by 11.00.a.m. The history of this temple mentions it as an alternative Tirupati. Unfortunately, the temple remained shut at the time of our arrival due to the demise of the temple priest that morning. We spent some time photographing random things around the temple before heading to our next destination, to see the Chettinad houses in Karaikudi.

Ayiram jannal: This was our first tryst with the palatial residential structures of Chettinad. The name that literally translates to “mansion with 1000 windows”, this Chettinad house in Karaikudi is a common shoot location for those familiar with South Indian cinema. Much to our disappointment, tourists do not have access to the inside of this house as the people still live in this house.

IMG-20160607-WA0005
The Inner courtyard of one of the mansions in Devakottai

Meenakshi-Sundareswaran temple: We were surprised to see the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha at this temple. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahana that are usually considered as the others. We had visited this temple on the outskirts of Karaikudi, while on our way to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac having been withered off at several places and a lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose.

Koviloor Shiva temple: This beautiful little temple is set in a very pleasant location and is surrounded with mansions. We had gotten busy clicking photos.

Koviloor antique museum: Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years. We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers.

One of the warehouses at Koviloor

Memorials built for the famous Tamil poets: Since we weren’t keen on visiting memorials, we gave it a miss to visiting the Kamban Mani mandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam.

Nagara Shivan temple: This temple stop happened by chance as our auto-driver cum guide stopped for a break at a random place after a short ride. We walked into this temple where a sumptuous lunch was served as part of donations from the devotees and that kept us full for the rest of the day.

Devakottai: We had read that this village has some of the well-kept mansions in the region. By now, our driver had a good understanding of our interests in exploring the region. Over the course of the day, he was very accommodative and stopped at several mansions thereby letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of localites to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) Although a couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others.

IMG-20160607-WA0002
The Mansion filled streets of Devakottai

There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened just for our academic purpose! We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions.

Kandadevi temple: We stopped at this temple on our way back to Karaikudi from Devakottai. The temple pond is spread across 2 acres and is believed to be the largest in Chettinad.

Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial: Originally, these were not in our list. But we visited these places as our enthusiastic auto-driver wanted us to see these landmarks named after prominent personalities who have contributed in the development of this region.

The making of Athangudi tiles

After an exhausting day exploring the streets crammed with Chettinad houses in Karaikudi, we were dropped at the bus stand to board the local bus to our next destination. The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan.

Click here to continue reading Part 2.

Must do’s in Chettinad:

  • Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
  • Shop for a colorful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
  • Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
  • Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan

Journey to the edge of India- Kanyakumari

Abstract: This was a family backpacking trip on a long weekend. The target destination was the southernmost tip of mainland India- Kanyakumari. We took a train on both ways. Hence, we had planned our route in such a way that we didn’t repeat the trail and could explore new places on both ways. Here’s a glimpse of the itinerary before I narrate the details:

Overnight train: Bangalore to Nagercoil by the ‘Nagercoil Express’
Day 1: The green stretch of Nagercoil comprising Padmanabhapuram palace, Udayagiri fort, Mathur aqueduct, Thiruvatturu Adi Perumal temple, enter the east coast and drive to Kanyakumari for sunset
Day 2: Catch the sunrise at Kanyakumari, a ferry ride to Vivekananda Rock, Vatakottai fort, Suchindran temple and board the night train at Nagercoil.

The details:
How can the thought of standing on the edge of land be expressed? As a kid, I always wondered how we stood steadily on a round globe… My curiosity grew further, when I was handed a world map for the first time. On it, the round globe looked flat. And on the world that looked flat on a map, India took the center position. And when carefully observed, I noticed that there is nothing below India but only water. On a closer look of the Indian sub-continent, Kanyakumari pops out in the edge, as the southern-most tip of the Indian mainland. Then I made a wish- ‘to make a journey to that end of land’…

Our overnight train journey was very pleasant through the route that was lush green and beautiful, even in the peak of summer. As the train entered Tirunelveli district, the landscape took a different look. Thousands and thousands of windmills seemed like they were strewn around, until the horizon. Our train slowly chugged past the hills only to later reach its destination- ‘Nagercoil junction’, the next morning.

Day 1:
We freshened up at the station and hired a taxi for the rest of the day. I managed to explain our itinerary to the driver with my broken Tamil and he managed to understand the jist: ‘To cover all the places listed down and ensure we make it to the Sunset point at Kanyakumari in time..!!’ That said, our sightseeing started in the order given below:

  1. The Nagaraja temple– The temple that gives its name to the city.
  2. We spent a good couple of hours photographing the BEAUTIFUL Padmanabhapuram palace in Thuckalay. It is by far, one of the beautiful palaces in South India. You don’t regret paying the entry fees as there is so much effort that has gone into the maintenance of this wooden palace. A surprising fact I discovered was that, although this palace is located in the state of Tamil-Nadu, it is maintained and controlled completely by the Kerala Government.
Padmanabhapuram palace (97)
The wooden facade of the Padmanabhapuram palace

3. Next was the Udayagiri fort. It wasn’t a great place as a traveler, but maybe a paradise for the bird watchers. It is converted into a mini zoo and houses the memorial of Commander De Lannoy- of the Dutch east India company.

4. The hanging trough / aqueduct at Mathur– The longest in Asia, is set amid a very beautiful surrounding of lush green cashew, coconut and rubber plantations.

5. Adi Perumal temple at Thiruvatturu- adorned with intricate sculptures (of the Cheras period probably). It was strange to know that the people of the Muslim community do not and cannot live in a radius of 6kms around this temple due to a curse by one of the rulers in history. Tippu Sultan had tried to steal the main idol with the help of the Nawab of Arcot. Also, this is probably the only temple where a grave of a ruler is seen next to the main idol of the temple.

Mathoor aqueduct (4)
Mathoor aqueduct

6. Jadeshwara temple and Mariamman temple are at a walkable distance from Perumal temple. It is here, Lord Vishnu had come to seek support of his sister- Parvathi to convince Goddess Lakshmi when the latter suspected Vishnu of being involved in an extra-marital affair while he had gone hunting in realty.. Strange legends!!

7. Chittaral jain temple at Vellomcode- is a part of the rocky hills. It is small but a nice place for the history buffs and the pilgrims alike.

8. Thiraparappu Mahadeva temple– This place was a turn off with very less to NO water in the waterfalls and being overly crowded with tourists(NOT pilgrims!!). I suppose it will be worth the while only if it is monsoon and when the river flows with all its might down the gorge forming the beautiful waterfalls and the temple at the backdrop.

9. Pechiparai dam– We gave this one a miss anticipating disappointment with no water in the dam.

For this trip, the drive was the highlight and not the places visited. The main road would have traffic and that would waste our time. Trying to ensure that we could cover all the places, our driver took us through the remote roads of Nagercoil. These narrow and winding roads flanked by coconut trees on either sides were probably least exploited by a normal tourist and hence we could have a feel of the rustic part of an otherwise pilgrim city. The cool and pleasant weather was another surprise. What was more surprising was that the weather in Nagercoil supported the spices plantations, in an otherwise hot and humid climate that Tamil Nadu is recognized with.

It was the southern-most part of the western coast of India, that we were planning to drive through, to reach the end of land. Suddenly, the weather changed and the dark clouds hovered over us. As we were approaching the seashore, the clouds broke hell. As we watched the rain batter, we had lost an hour doing nothing. This meant that if we had to arrive at the Sunset point on time, we could only drive through without stopping anywhere. We drove past the Thengapattinam beach, Colachel port (it has a victory pillar to commemorate the victory of the Travancore king over the Dutch army), Mandaikadu temple, Muttom beach, Tekkurichi beach, Sanguthurai beach, Sothavilai beach and Manarkudi. When we finally reach our destination, what awaited us was sheer disappointment. There were clouds, clouds and more clouds..!!! We spent some time with the waves and headed to the hotel in the city where we had booked our stay.

Day 2:
We saw ourselves seated amid thousands of people who had gathered there for the same reason as us. The famous ‘SUNRISE of Kanyakumari’. We watched the sea change its colour from pitch black to different hues of the spectrum until dawn’s break. But, again our woes with badluck continued on day 2 as well. A nebule of cloud sat adamantly blocking the rising sun.. adding much to all our disappointment from the previous evening.

Kanyakumari (16)
The post sunrise visuals of the Vivekananda rock

We visited the ‘Kanyakumari Amman temple’ and the confluence point of the three oceans along with the other touristy places in the city (There is enough written about the places to see in the internet- I don’t want to repeat the same stuff again!) The wait in the queue that was at least 3 furlongs, under the hot sun was a big turn off. My expectations of finding the calm I was told about across the waters (Read it- the Vivekananda Rock) was let down by the galling tourists who had thronged there in thousands on that weekend. We left Kanyakumari in the afternoon, all disheartened by the way things turned out on a much anticipated trip.

We did a quick visit to Vatakottai fort- a small but a calm place away from the vexing crowd. We then stopped at Suchindran temple that stood grand with its majestic tower, but remained closed when we arrived there. We spent some time sitting by the temple pond and feeding the fishes with puffed rice.. And we finally left back to Nagercoil to board our evening train back to Namma Bengaluru.

Summary:
Kanyakumari, being the edge of land is more of an emotion that every Indian grows up listening to. So, this is one of those places in every Indian’s bucket list. Mine was an ideal itinerary covering a lot of places. But the rain gods didn’t seem to be in our favour. But I would like to mention the highlights that SHOULD go into the list of anyone visiting Kanyakumari:

  • When you go to this particular spot at Kanyakumari- You can feel the waves touching your feet from 3 directions- left, right and center.. quite literally..!! That’s when you sense that you are standing in the end of land where the three seas meet- The Bay of Bengal, The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The feeling can only be experienced and not expressed.
  • The ruby nose stud adorned by the chief deity- Goddess Parvathi is believed to be shining so bright that history has it that many ships had been misguided due to its light. And that’s also the reason why the sea facing door on the eastern side of the temple is always kept closed, except for a few special occasions.
  • Lot of shopping… Shell crafts..!!

A Not so Blissful Trip to the City of Eternal Bliss- Chidambaram

This trip was part of a backpacking by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bangalore

As per this, we left Bangalore on a Sunday night in a bus and decided to explore further at our own pace, using public transport and staying at places with bookings made on the go. Plan was all set. But well, with a small glitch. We assumed that the monsoon season was the same in the entire southern India. But what we hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that Tamil Nadu doesn’t come under the south-western monsoon. Hence, the monsoon peaks (with north-east winds) after the season ends in its neighboring states. So, we were now on an exploration of Tamil Nadu in October, during the peak of its monsoon season! Anyway, with its share of travel miseries, poor planning gave us the benefit of experiencing a different kind of backpacking.

Firstly, we explored Kumbakonam, a place which is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. It was a wonderful experience to explore a place that is soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage, mostly from the Chola era. (This is elaborated in a separate post, click here to read). From Kumbakonam, our next planned destination for a major halt was the place that’s is often referred as ‘a city of eternal bliss’. But our experience was as unblissful as it could get, even as we wished to get a glimpse of the deity of a temple whose manifestation is revered to be as one of the five elements of life- ‘Space’. I would like to elaborate this trip for my readers to get a wholesome idea of our visit to this city was like for us!

With incessant rains, our mobile-phone network had been patchy. On day 2 at Kumbakonam, we received a call from our parents who had been trying to get in touch with us since the previous night. They informed us about the alert issued by the Met. Department. We checked online and confirmed the news about the weather forecast of cyclone- Roanu and a deep depression in the Bay of Bengal. We were asked not to venture near the seacoast. Our intended trip itself was supposed to be along the Coromandel coast- including Cuddalore and Pondicherry. Since the day was bright, we did not take our Met.dept. seriously and decided to take a chance by continuing with the plan from Kumbakonam.

With a visit to the Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram (another of the three living Chola temples), we boarded a bus to Mannarkudi. From Mannarkudi, we were supposed to take another bus towards our next planned destination: Chidambaram. However, the conductor informed us that the road beyond Mannarkudi was blocked since the previous night due to an uprooted tree. Although the tree was cleared, he wasn’t sure if the route was worthy for us to go. Without really understanding the seriousness of his advice, we boarded an overly priced private bus which ferried us to Chidambaram. Our road was flanked by the Kollidam until most stretch. Last time we had seen this part of the state was with our family, during our quest to see the end of river Kaveri. The dam was empty and dry back then. Today, she was flowing in full spate and the Grand Anicut was filled till its maximum limit. Kaveri looked beautiful with her brown waters reflecting back the sun rays that sneaked from amid the thick grey clouds. That was the point from where, the real saga of our road trip started.

As we covered a little distance ahead of the dam, the river began to touch the road around the corners at most turns. Gradually, the river started to spill over the road at some stretches. Instead of plying on the road, it seemed like our bus was driving over the river at these junctions. Further into the journey, the water level increased. Several stretches (in kilometers) of the road was submerged by the river. Our driver was a real super star- who could figure out exactly where the road laid in the ground in spite of the water being above the tire height. Even a slight slip in the road only meant death and nothing less. The entire bus with about 25-30 passengers could have been washed away by the currents of the spiteful river. I had only seen such things in the news. Now I was right there, experiencing a flood scene, firsthand.

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram
The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

Stretches of villages laid submerged ahead. At some places, the thatched roofs and the hay huts had given away. We could see utensils floating around on the road, helpless villagers wading across the (once existent) streets, even as the flood water stayed above their waist level. Their plight was heart rendering to see, even as the rest of us inside the bus continued to wonder if we were going to see a safe arrival at our destination at all. The rain of just one night had wreaked so much havoc across the state of Tamil Nadu. However, our driver remained focused and drove us across to reach the safe harbor at Chidambaram by around 03.00.p.m.

My brother and I decided to drop the luggage at the hotel which we had booked online and find some food for ourselves. We hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. On arrival at the hotel, we were a little perplexed to see our room. The bedsheets looked extremely old, torn and dirty. The bathroom was a disaster. The toilet floor was covered with a thick layer of algae, slush and mud, all that had accumulated over years without washing it. The flush lever was broken, the taps rusted and a crazy layer of deposits on the bucket and the mug. The nasty smell of alcohol hit our noses from outside through the opened door even as we continued to feel suffocated inside that room. My brother and I looked at each other’s face- and both of us knew what was running in each other’s mind. In spite of being exhausted and hungry, we decided to leave the place and find some other place to stay. Just when we started to descend the stairs and as if the injury (of finding a bad room online) wasn’t enough, I happened to step on a large mess of barf, thrown up by some drunkard on the stairs and slip down a couple of steps.

Until this moment of our day, I had managed to keep my calm, but my brother gave up. He wanted to end the trip right there and return to Bangalore. While he found no buses that would leave Chidambaram immediately to Bangalore, I managed to convince him to stay calm until we boarded a night bus at least. I found a place near the ‘Nataraja temple’ where I could clean myself and headed to get the darshan of the lord. The visit was peaceful, maybe I will write about in another post someday.

The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple
The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple

After finishing the evening prayers, my brother booked our tickets to Bangalore for the same night. Since my holidays were still not over, somewhere deep in my mind, I still wanted to complete my trip. I didn’t want one bad experience of the day ruin the entire holiday for us. But, given the weather condition further ahead in our planned route, I couldn’t rule out my apprehensions of getting stranded in the cyclone at Pondicherry as well.

But right now, our priority was different. We had been starving since morning and had to find something to fill our stomach. In spite of walking the WHOLE of Chidambaram town, we couldn’t locate a single place where we could find food. Thanks to the day of Deepawali festival- there were absolutely NO eateries open! Also, the entire town was SOO DIRTY with garbage littered everywhere. After a long search, we finally found ONE supermarket in the entire town. And what did we get to eat there? Just a cup of sweet corn to sate our hungry bodies.

Our city woes did not end after eating the steamed corn. It was still 07.00.p.m and we had three hours more to kill. On enquiring with a few locals, we were told that we would find a decent restaurant near the bus stand. And so as per the recommendations of the local people, we found this AC luxury restaurant called ‘Vandayar- Southern Spice’.

When we arrived there, the waiter informed us that they served only fried rice for the day. The waiter came to our table thrice to take our order (for the only dish available) and after two hours of waiting for food, there arrived a convoy of VIP customers at the restaurant. Bonus for waiting: A feast was set for this VIP family that comprised of all dishes from the menu. Even while all the tables were occupied with middle-class customers including my brother and me, there was no one from the restaurant that cared for our existence that day. Wondering if we were waiting for any free food to be served at 09.00.p.m. several customers grew furious and started to walk out of the restaurant. It was also time for us to board our bus. As we too walked out of this VIP restaurant, there was power cut in the town.

In a dark and dingy bus-stand, we spotted the only stall that served tea and some biscuits. The little candlelight was just enough for the tea-stall guy to reach out to things in his kiosk. We were essentially scared of stamping some more muck that could’ve been laid in the littered path. As we dunked the last biscuit into our chai, we had yet another surprise for us. Our bus to Bangalore was delayed by 2 hrs.!!! As we waited there in the dark platform of the bus stand, some drunk men started to throw glass bottles at the crowd there. Luckily no one was injured, but the downpour of bottles and splatter of glass pieces continued for a while. Our bus arrived after a while and we boarded at 10.00.p.m.

With all the crazy stuff that happened that day, we fell asleep quickly… Only to be woken up at sunrise. That’s when the rain was battering outside, and our bus had broken down on the highway. Although we were given an alternate bus in a while, our anxiety continued until we reached home.

The temple Gopuram at Chidambaram Nataraja temple

Conclusion Remarks: The people on the east coast are god’s chosen ones to have a grand celebration of festivals. Tsunami for Christmas. Cyclones for Diwali…!! One cannot sit in a place, hear stories and imagine of places and people. You need to move yourself to places to experience and explore. This trip was one such experiences where I got a first had experience of braving a flood and starvation of food. Also, this is a trip where I managed to find a place in India that I wouldn’t want to return.

Tracing the Cholan trail- Kumbakonam

This was part of a backpacking trip by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bengaluru

Although being located in the same district, soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage from the Chola era, Kumbakonam is a place that is mostly overshadowed by its counterpart at Tanjavur town. Hence, it is a place that is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. I was curious to cover this city and absorb as much of it as possible. While I embarked on a weeklong backpacking through some parts of East-coast road, I had enlisted the temples that seemed culturally important and hoped to visit them while I passed through the city of Kumbakonam.

Getting around:

As you may know, most of my trips are by availing public transportation. During this trip, all the places within the city were covered by walk. (you can alternately hire an autorickshaw to show you around and save some time). All other places located on the outskirts were explored through public/ local buses that are very frequent and extremely lighter on the pocket. If you are using this blog as a reference to explore this ancient city of the Cholas, you can plan your commutation accordingly. Places to visit in Kumbakonam city largely comprise of temples and can be broadly grouped into three categories depending on their location and proximity of accessibility.

a. Temples within a cluster within the city (temples 1~5 and 11~12 in my list)
b. Temples within a cluster on the city outskirts (temples 6~8 in my list)
c. Temples located on separate locations on the city outskirts (9~10 and 13~18 in my list)

Accommodation:

It was raining cats and dogs when we alighted at Kumbakonam bus stand in the morning. We had pre-booked a hotel in Kumbakonam city through an online portal. But after reaching the place, we realized that there was a mistake from the portal and the hotel was closed for Deepawali vacation. We sat there and browsed through websites to find alternate accommodation options. Meanwhile, the pounding rain had mellowed down to a drizzle. We finally managed to find a hotel nearby where we dumped all our baggage, freshened up and ventured out to explore. Bonus for the online goof up by the website: We had a room upgrade.

So, here are the places we visited during our short stint of 2 days at this historical city of Kumbakonam in the order of our travel.

Day 1:

  1. The Nageswara temple: A sizably big temple dedicated to the Snake king Adishesha who is believed to have offered his prayers to Lord Shiva here. An interesting part in this vast 1000years old temple premise is the kalyana mantap. The Cholas have sculpted this stone structure in the form of a chariot being drawn by life sized elephants and horses with the suspension technique.
The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil
The Kalyana mantapa at Nageswaram kovil

2. Sarangampani: We reached this temple that follows the Vaishnavism cult after wading through a flooded road. Notable contributions have been made by Cholas, Vijayanagar, Madurai Nayaks etc. to the overall architecture of this temple. A temple tank is located on the western side of this temple.

The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil
The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil

3. Someshwar temple: This is located adjacent to the Sarangampani temple. We skipped an exclusive visit to this temple after getting some photos from the outside of the temple. From there, we continued through the busy shopping lanes of the town to reach our next landmark.

4. Adikumbeshwara temple: It is believed that Kumbakonam gets its name from this Shiva temple. Legend has it that lord Brahma’s pot (Kumba) containing nectar of worldly lives was rolled down and stopped at this town after being hit by Shiva’s arrow. The sculptures at the temple are interesting where a 16-pillar hall built by the Vijayanagar kings has all the 27 stars and 12 zodiacs sculpted on a single stone. Also, the piped instruments(nagaswarams) etched out of stone and the cattle-shed are noteworthy. Today, this vast temple premises are also used for commercial purposes with several shops and restaurants setup in this complex.

5. Ramasamy temple: A place dedicated to lord Rama; it is believed to be the only temple which houses the idols of Rama & Sita along with all his brothers inside the sanctum Sanctorum. The entire story of Ramayana has been painted on the corridor walls of this temple. And hence, for someone interested in art and beyond just checking places, it would require at least a day or two to observe the murals here.

Obviously, we did not have the luxury of more than a couple of hours to spend, and hence our visit was limited to just a quick brush up of whatever we could understand of the images there.

The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple
The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple

6. Mahamahan tank: We timed our visit to this place around noon, when all temples in South India usually close down. This mythologically important tank is spread across 6 acres and is believed to be created out of the nectar that was spilt from Brahma’s pot.

7. Kashivishwanathar temple: This is located at the entrance of the Mahamahan tank. It is believed that the navakannigas or the 9 maidens of Shiva (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi, Kaveri, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabhadra & Sarayu) representing 9 rivers visit and bathe in this tank once in 12 years. A day when lakhs of devotees flock here. It is believed that people who cannot make it to Kailash / Manasa Sarovar visit this temple as an alternative to wash off their sins. Though the temple was closed when we reached there, we were very fortunate to get the prasadam that made a nice filling lunch.

8. Abhimukeshwara temple: Located nearby, on the other side of the tank, we only walked past this place as it too remained closed. From there, we boarded a bus to our next major landmark on my ‘to visit’ list.

9. Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram: We visited this temple, on the outskirts of Kumbakonam (one of the three living Chola temples) when No-one else would! By the time we walked from the bus-stop to the temple, our umbrellas were flipped by the heavy winds and the pounding rain had battered and gotten us drenched till our bone. The entire temple complex was FLOODED (with knee-deep water). It was an insane visit where my brother and I both decided to go ahead, wade through the water, and have the entire place for ourselves. We climbed up a ladder (placed by the temple priest to perform the daily rituals) to reach the temple corridor. It was BEAUTY, up there! Bonus: The sight of the entire temple complex in a reflection in the accumulated water. (I know this photo is not its best, but still the best memory that our mobile phone camera could capture to for our grandkids when we would tell them about this place!).

Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram
Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram

After getting some nice shots, we made our way out to the main road to catch a bus to our next destination. The short journey thereon reminded us of Sebastian Vettel cruising on narrow countryside tarmac amid overflowing potholes and LOUD tapangucchi music in the background. With nothing to hold on to during the frequent braking by the driver to stop the bus for passengers to board/alight, got the bus to screeching halts from a revving speed. It was a fun ride that ended in few minutes as we alighted at our next planned landmark.

10. Pateeswaran temple: This is originally a Shiva temple, but the goddess has been given prime importance here. It is said that the Cholas offered prayers to the goddess Patti(daughter), calf of the sacred cow Kamdhenu here before proceeding for any battles during their reign. However, when we arrived here, it remained closed only to open again at 05.00.p.m.

As the rain gods again took over the silent skies, we decided to head back to the city. After reaching Kumbakonam city, we looked out for a place that served the trademark ‘Kumbakonam degree coffee’, our piping hot cuppa filter coffee to warm ourselves to some extent from the chilling rain. It was only 06.00.p.m but dark already. As planned, we set out to find our way through the super crowded street of the city to find the remaining two temples from our list.

The main bazaar street is a state highway- All thanks to the festival of Deepawali, it seemed like the entire district had come down to one street in Kumbakonam for shopping. The street was jam-packed with not even an inch of breathing space. We somehow managed to get out without actually facing a stampede. Albeit the heavy rain, we closed our umbrellas and stood amid the crowd. The crowd pulled us along to reach the exit of the street from where we walked to the next temple on our list.

11. Chakrapani temple: Here, Vishnu is worshipped in his sleeping posture holding his ‘Chakra’ on one finger. We witnessed the last pooja of the day after which we were wondering if we had to continue to the next temple or not since all the nearby temples had started to close down. Anyway, we had a lot of time to kill and walked across to take a chance.

12. Brahma temple: We considered ourselves to be fortunate to have decided to take a chance and arrive here. The temple was still open, and we had made to the last pooja at this temple as well. The priest was ecstatic to greet us who went on narrating us stories from mythology and depicting the importance of this otherwise small temple in Kumbakonam. We were told that it was 1 of the only 2 temples in all of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Lord Brahma. We were happy to savor the prasadam, which was very unexpected.

We then had a sumptuous supper at a restaurant before we called it a day. It took the same amount of pain to cross the crowded bazaar street to reach back to the hotel and catch some good night’s sleep.

Day 2:

On the following morning, we were early risers to catch up with our planned itinerary. We boarded a 07.00.a.m. bus to our first destination of the day, situated on a small hillock on the outskirts of Kumbakonam.

13. Swamimalai: Abode of one of the six important murugan temples in Tamil Nadu, Swamimalai is also an important destination of idol making in India. A limited number of artisans who all live in clusters around the temple here, have carried along a science and art of bronze idol making from the Chola period. The technology used in the ‘lost wax method’ of metal casting is practiced as per the Vedas and is something that needs a more elaborate citation, in another post.

After offering our prayers, we decided to head back to the city to get buses to the other places on our list.

Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan
Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan

Meanwhile, we couldn’t locate any restaurant that was open for breakfast even at 08.00.a.m. Hence, we decided to have lunch once and for all at wherever we would reach. If one had the convenience of an own transportation, there are several other ancient temples that I would recommend for visiting. It would be ideal to have an additional day in hand and make Kumbakonam the central place as all these recommended places are located in different directions, forming somewhat a radius around this town. Local buses are available from Kumbakonam to each of these places, but it would be very time consuming to come back to Kumbakonam to change a bus to every time. Hence, we decided to skip the below places and head to our last major landmark.

14. Uppiliappan

15. Thirubuvanam

16. Thiruvalanchizi

17. Thiruvidaimaruthur etc.

18. The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram: We reached this yet another magnanimous temple after changing two buses (A change of bus at Kork road / GK cross). The biggest (of the three-great living Chola temples enlisted by UNESCO), this structure stood right adjacent to the national highway enchanting every tourist with all its might. The 3 living temples are together called so because the prayers, festivities followed thousands of years ago, during the Chola period are still being followed religiously till date and have stood as true testimony of time and Tamil culture.

The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram

From here, we continued our backpacking into another territory within Tamil Nadu. From Tanjavur district, we were thereon heading towards Chidambaram via Pichavaram. Backpacking trips and road trips always carry elements of surprise and they are supposed to be like that. They can never be planned precisely. These trips always carry scope for making impromptu changes in the itinerary and taking on new adventures. That’s what was awaiting us on the next leg of this weeklong trip, far away in the southern-most state of India. Click here to read more on my journey to Chidambaram.