Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in the tourist circuit. A land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form- Pathanamthitta.
First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.
Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video). This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.
A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.
I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.
I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.
(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)
How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.
Educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some characteristics that describe the native community of Chettinad- the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over 2 districts of Shivagangai and Pudukottai.. Given only a weekend’s time in hand- we had to make an itinerary and list down the villages to cover. But one thing was clear, this time the stay would not be pre-booked and we would look out for some generous localite to offer us a patch of floor space to lay our sleeping bags- In one of the mansions if we get lucky 😉 Our backpacking trip started at the end of an overnight bus journey to Karaikudi. The hotel staff obliged by charging only half the price when we informed them that we will be checking out after freshening up. The day started on a high with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up.
We worked out the mode of our commutation with a very friendly waiter at the hotel and figured out that hiring an auto 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 summer would just add up to our woes. We struck a good deal with an auto guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping. As per plan of visiting all temples ASAP(as they would all close by 11.00.a.m.) we were firstly ferried to Ariyakudi Perumal temple whose history mentions it as an alternative Tirupathi. Unfortunately, when we arrived- the temple remained shut due to the demise of the priest that morning. After spending sometime photographing random things around the temple, we headed to- ‘Ayiram jannal or the mansion with a 1000 windows’. We were disappointed for not being allowed inside as the people still live in this house. Our stint with Karaikudi somehow did not seem to have started well… Then was our road to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac withered off at several places with lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose. Enroute, we visited the Meenakshi-Sundareshwara temple where the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha was the highlight. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahanas that are usually considered as the others’.
Up next, we stopped at the Koviloor Shiva temple. A beautiful little temple set in a very pleasant location and surrounded with mansions got us busy clicking photos. 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. We weren’t keen on visiting the Kamban Manimandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam (memorials built for the famous Tamil poets) and hence gave it a miss.
After a short ride, we stopped at Nagara Shivan temple where a sumptuous lunch was served that kept us full for the rest of the day. Our driver was very accommodative and knew what exactly we were interested in and stopped at several mansions letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of house owners to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) A couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions. 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. 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. While we were permitted inside a couple more mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others. A short ride away on our way back to Karaikudi, we stopped at the 2 acres wide pond of the Kandadevi temple- the largest in Chettinad. Our driver showed us the Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial before he dropped us at the bus stand to board our 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. Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt clueless on how to start. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses that we had come all the way for gone. We followed our instinct and decided to walk till that road’s end to find some hotel for our night’s stay. We heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’ cuz we at least got to know where to head in the worst case for the night. After walking further down the street, we were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught the ‘Sight of the day’!! An ever ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both side… We surely were in for a treated-Shock!! AMAZING!! The facades of these villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes. This village in particular is not very tourist friendly and most of the original owners have locked the huge bungalows are living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents have however been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. One such place is the CVRM house… Well maintained antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. are kept to retain the grandeur of this house where once lived a large and an affluent family. While we were still admiring the grand interiors, what happened next was something beyond imagination for us. A lady had noticed the uncertainty in our faces while Madhu and I were discussing about our stay and asked us where we were put up. When we told her that we were looking for a place, she instantaneously offered us to stay at her place if we did not mind. Of course, it is quite ghastly to think about staying at a stranger’s house in the years where we hear of unhappy events, but there was some innocence in her personality that really did not bother us to doubt. We both nodded a yes in unison. A short stroll by the road’s end and a large gate opened into a typical Chettiar house. Very small compared to the mansions that have mesmerized us all day, but it was a home to people with really BIG hearts. We were served multi-grain-homemade-delicious-malt on our arrival and a nice dinner after we had freshened up… This greeting itself will take up an entire post if I had to write about it… The narrow colonnade verandah opened into a central courtyard that opened into the sky. We were engulfed by a sleep filled with solace right there on the ground with just a humble mat beneath and a glitzy starry night’s sky that stayed clear all through… A stay that was only a dream come true..!!
We started early in the morning cuz we had to do the temples and the walking before the sun showed up with his ruthlessness. We took a rickshaw and we visited Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples. These are beautiful temples from the Pandyan era that are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. A pious traveler may also consider visiting Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur, Mathur temples covering all the 9 clan temples around the region. After having lunch served by donors at Vairavanpatti, we headed towards Athangudi. We visited the ‘Periyaveedu’, a house named aptly -the Athangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they make your jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay there beyond 15minutes by the caretakers. COME-ON… you really need time to observe the details and intricacies of such a place. We somehow managed to pull off about half-an-hour but their attitude pissed us off… Our driver drove us off from there to our next destination. Sorry, I forgot to mention- The cranking lever of the auto-rickshaw had come off and was kept under our feet and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, we had to push start the auto each time we stopped and the driver had to jump out of the slow moving rickshaw each time to stop it. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, you get a few additional horsepower to move your vehicle 😛
That said, we visited Aathangudi palace tiles factory & wood art restoration centre where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food that our gustatory cells were craving for which was finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight. A quick trip to the Chettinad railway station proved to be more of a pain than of fun when at the end of an exhausting ride, we got to know that the special waiting room will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.
We got dropped back as we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot. We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the local weaving centres. We then walked across to be awestruck by the largest mansion I have ever seen- the Chettinad Raja’s palace, a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. After trying our luck, we got saddened by the fact that we couldn’t gain entry into this palace that is still being resided at. Our adventure continued until dusk and when the light was perfect for some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village. 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..
To sum-up, the trip has taught us a BIG lesson. All who live in a mansion ain’t rich, All the rich are not humble, to be humble, you need no qualification.
Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
Shop for a colourful 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
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. Now, 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…
A very pleasant journey in the ‘Nagercoil express’ ended at the Nagercoil junction the next morning. The train route itself is so beautiful with lush greenery even in the peak of summer. As the train entered Tirunelveli district, the landscape takes a different look. Thousands and thousands of windmills seemed to have been strewn until the horizon. Our train slowly chugged past the hills only to later reach its destination- ‘Nagercoil junction’. 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 understood the jist- 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:
The Nagaraja temple- The temple that gives its name to the city.
We spent a good couple of hours photographing the BEAUTIFUL Padmanabhapuram palace in Thuckalay. By far, one of the beautiful palaces in South India, you don’t regret paying the entry fees as there is a lot of effort that has gone into maintenance of this wooden palace. A surprising fact is that, although this palace is in the state of Tamil-Nadu, the palace is maintained and controlled completely by the Kerala Government.
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. This is probably the only temple where a grave of a ruler is seen next to the main idol of the temple.
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..!!
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 its monsoon, 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 as we had anticipated only disappointment with no water in the dam if we had visited there.
The entire drive was the highlight of our day as our driver took us through the remotest roads to avoid the traffic on the main road just so that we could cover all the places within the given time. 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 weather was another surprise which was extremely cool and supported the spices plantations in the otherwise hot and humid climate that Tamil Nadu is recognized with.
Suddenly, the weather changed and the dark clouds hovered over us. 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. As we were approaching the seashore, the clouds broke hell and we waited inside the car until the pounding rain paced down. Now we had lost an hour doing nothing and that meant 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, Manarkudi and we finally arrived at the Sunset point- Just in time. What awaited us was sheer disappointment in the form of 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.
On day 2- we saw ourselves seated amid thousands of people who had gathered there for the same reason as us. The infamous ‘SUNRISE of Kanyakumari’. We watched the sea change its colour from pitch black to different hues of the spectrum until dawn’s break. But we had to be EXTREMELY unfortunate again- a nebule of cloud sat adamantly blocking the rising sun.. We visited the temple and other mundane 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 d queue under the hot sun that was at least 3 furlongs 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. Having been disheartened by the way things turned out on a much anticipated trip, we left Kanyakumari in the afternoon.
We did a quick visit to Vatakottai fort- a small but a calm place away from the vexing crow. 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.
So 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.
Lot of shopping… Shell crafts..!!
Must sees- The nose stud of ruby adorning the chief deity- Goddess Parvathi is believed to be shining so bright that many ships have been misguided due to its light. And that’s also the reason why the Eastern door of the temple that faces the sea is always kept closed except for a few special occasions.
getting lost in traveling through places and time…