Sunday 17 February 2013

Tanjavur - the historical town

Carnatic Music was coded here; Bharatanatyam had its major styles developed here; a unique painting with gold originated here; Thousand year old Temple acclaimed as World Heritage Site is here; Nayaks and Marathas enjoyed their princely opulence here – Tanjavur!

Trichy to Tanjavur (Rs.35, 90min) bus reaches the new bus stand at Tanjavur. The city bus stand at the city centre is 2km away reachable by local bus. Accommodation is cheaper near the New Bus Stand, N.M.Lodge, No.928, Baskarapuram (Tel: 04362 226910, Mob: 91595 81716, dbl Rs.390) is the best value accommodation owned by a retired cop. Aarya Vilas restaurant opposite to bus stand provides excellent vegetarian dishes.

Brihadeeshwara Temple aka Big Temple: The vast temple complex displaying the architectural mastery of artisans dating back thousand years is a feast to the eyes. The enormity of the complex gave us a comfort feeling with lot of fresh air and a perfect ambience to step inside a temple with no boards stating “no entry to non-Hindus” to the main sanctum. The priest were rather welcoming and giving us the history of the temple and the idols worshipped. Two gopuras – Rajarajan Tiruvasal, Keralantka built in 1010 C.E. The sheer gigantic size of the main tower soars to 60.96m built through a corbelling system. The top portion of the gopuram does not cast a shadow that fall on the ground within the temple premises. Shiva depicted as Tripurantaka and 81 karanas (dance poses – postures of Bharatanatyam) adorn the circumambulatory. The huge Nandi statue is carved out of a single rock measuring 16ft long and 13ft high is the largest of its kind.

In the morning, with very minimal number of tourist and two girls singing wonderful Keertanas made us fall in love with not only the architecture but the temple as a whole. The evenings are magnificent with shades of sky and lit up premises but be prepared for crowds who treat this heritage site as a picnic spot.
Royal Palace and Museums: surrounded by a few schools this maze of palace, museum is undergoing a major restoration process after a long time of neglect. The Durbar hall is well kept with bronze sculptures and unique wall paintings is the main attraction. Saraswathi Mahal Library, one of the oldest libraries in Asia displays 18th century manuscripts, war reports with detailed sketches of London, Bangalore. Some of the rare books include Dr.Samuel Johnson’s dictionary from 1784, ancient maps of the world, The Madras Almanac printed in 1807 and town planning documents of Tanjavur. Raja Serfoji Memorial Hall and Royal Palace Museum house a small collection of thrones, weapons and photographs from early 19th century. A rare collection of bronze vessels and porcelain decorative items are yet to be restored by the Curator. The whole complex was built by Nayaks and Marathas.

The feminine counterpart of Brihadeeswara Temple was built by Rajendra Chola I is located at Gangaikondacholapuram, 35km north of Kumbakonam. To reach here ride a bus to Kumbakonam (Rs.22, 90min) – one of the worst roads in Tamil Nadu. Take another bus from Kumbakonam to Jayakondam and get down at Gangaikondacholapuram (Rs.15, 1-2hrs depending on your luck with the notorious one way bridge on the way). Rajendra Chola I got the name Gangaikondan due to his successful campaigns up to Ganga valley. Maintained by ASI, this temple has an octagonal tower rising up to 180ft and two deep wells within the grass lawn premises. Sphinx like lion statue leads to a well. British caused damage to this monument when engineers used the stone slabs for lower Anicut dam built across river Kollidam in the recent centuries. There is an excavation site 3km away from this temple.


There are small cottage industries in and around Tanjavur manufacturing Veena, Mrudangam supplying to most of the shops in South India. To watch how a Veena gets its finishing lines from a piece of jackfruit wood, visit Veena Narayanan’s house near Rontgen Laboratory, South Main Street – walkable distance from Big Temple.
For an enthusiast in classical dance and music, architecture, culture, history Tanjavur is a top choice, as one gets a feel of the above as well as in-depth knowledge. Tanjavur is in the list of places to be visited a second time!

Trichy - the education hub

Lourde’s Church: A Catholic church decorated heavily with colourful flower arrangements, both natural and plastic. Built during 1890-1903 and renovated later, this huge church’s 200 ft tall spire is pointing towards the sky. The stained glass panels depicting stories from the Bible are dazzling. St. Joseph’s College was founded in Nagapattinam in 1844 and later transferred to Trichy in 1883 by Jesuits and the Lourde’s Church construction followed. The campus is sprawling over acres of greenery. Former president Dr. Abdul Kalam is part of the alumni. The museum on the campus will be opened for a group, not for individual visitors- two bricks from Babylon, 650 B.C. and 2 pieces of wood from the London bridge burnt in 1230- are these not worth joining a group for a visit?

Rock Fort Temple (Kallu Kottai Kovil) : Vibhishana (younger half -brother of Ravana from the epic Ramayana) returning to Sri Lanka with the idol of Lord Ranganatha in a lying posture gifted to him by Sri Rama, was tricked by Ucchivinayagar and made to leave his idol behind him on the northern bank of river Cauvery. Overlooking the large pond nearby, two temples are located on top of the hill at 83m height. Three deck construction of temple on the boulders of this 3.5 billion years old mountain is a rare exhibition of architectural skill. There are 400 and odd steps to climb to reach the Vinayaka temple at the summit. It is worth climbing up regardless of the fact that non-Hindus are not allowed inside either of the Temples, to appreciate the architectural mastery while gazing at Trichy’s landscapes and St. Joseph’ College campus.

Ride bus No. 1 from Trichy bus stand and get down at Chatram Bus Stand to visit the temples, church and college –this bus goes to Srirangam area in a circular route crossing Cauvery.

Pudukkottai to Trichy (Rs.25, 90 min) bus reaches Trichy central bus stand near Trichy Junction railway station. Accommodation near Trichy Central Bus station is pricey with low hygiene. If you are not in hurry, take Bus No.1 and head to Srirangam area- more peaceful and cleaner accommodations are around Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple- possibly the biggest temple complex in India. Highly commercialized with numerous shops around, Art Museum, panoramic view point, this temple is dedicated to Vishnu and provided another example of Nayak era carvings of many avatars of Vishnu complete with a thousand pillar mandapam and seven gopurams.

Lakshmi Towers, No 26, EVS Street, Renganagar, Srirangam (T 0431 243531, dbl Rs 550/-) with exceptionally clean rooms and attentive staff- (they walk barefoot inside the lodge!). A supermarket opposite sells you many items which you may not find in other towns.

If houses with coconut leaf thatched roof and mud walls can be considered as signs of poverty, rural Tamil Nadu is relatively poor. People seem to spend a lot on multi coloured flex boards with their photographs announcing birthday and wedding with politicians, film stars in the background. Toilet seems to be an alien mechanism in rural area, open defecation and urination practised without a designated location even amongst women. Hope the government prioritise sanitation over free television sets.

Chettinadu - the gourmand's land


The name rings the bell for a gourmand! Chettinadu cuisine is primarily for carnivores (fish, chicken) and different from the staple diet of idli-dosa-sambar-chutney which is ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu. Chettinadu region near Karaikudi is a village with many Chettiar mansions which were decorated with imported articles during their opulence of trading. Most of them have left the village and sold their old mansions to resort chains that restored these mansions tastefully to run boutique hotels. This region has no lodges to stay and the mansion-hotels are not suitable for backpackers’ budget. The best option would be to stay at Karaikudi (15min) or Pudukkottai (30min) and visit the Chettinadu villages by hop-on/off local buses. We took a bus from Rameswaram to Karaikudi (Rs 88, 3hrs) which diverts to ECR (East Coast Road) at Ramanathapuram. The green buses with PP Express written, has fewer stops and costs a lot if you are not travelling long distance. The private buses are much cheaper but has very frequent stops. A local bus from Karaikudi to Pudukkottai goes through Kanadukathan village which is 1km from the main road- a mansion run by a hotel chain and another one managed by Chettiar family are here.

Kadiyapatti is another authentic Chettinadu village, 6km from Thirumayam Fort. Ride a bus to Pudukkottai and hop off at Thirumayam Fort stop. Climbing up this ASI restored fort gives you an aerial view of the green and serene villages cooling your eyes from the scorching heat. You can either wait for a bus to Kadiyapatti or ride an auto for a round trip Rs 100; call friendly young driver Madhavan (T 9786506009). You can talk to the family at any Chettiar mansion expressing your interest of appreciating their house, they will welcome you. Chettinadu will be probably the only place where an herbivore has to search for a vegetarian restaurant. Hotel Mahalaxmi at Thirumayam offers good vegetarian meals.


There are a string of cheap lodges around Pudukkottai bus station, Hotel AKGN (T 04322-224462, dbl Rs 450) with clean toilets and spacious rooms are one of them. Carrying a mosquito net or spraying with repellents is the most ideal solution for a peaceful sleep at any lodge in Tamil Nadu. Pudukkottai Museum is 10min by bus housing a vast collection of artefacts, paintings, sculptures, coins, stuffed animals and almost anything you can expect in a museum. The nearby Hotel Madura offers excellent home-cooked meals in their low ceiling house on a banana leaf, don’t forget to say No before the loving hosts serve more rice and curries onto your leaf.
Take a bus (No. 10/23, 30min) to Annavasal which turns left after the Museum stop to get to Sittanavasal – an upcoming park built by State Government. 15 km from Pudukkottai, this interior quiet village is known for the Jain temple dating back to 2nd century A.D. Jainism flourished here from 2nd to 10th century A.D. Feast upon the frescoes painted by vegetable colours on the ceiling and spend a few minutes deep solitude and meditation inside the rock-cut cave temple. It proclaimss the Samavasarana faith of Jainism.


Narthamalai is 16km from Puthukottai on the way to Trichy, get down at the Narthamalai bus stop on the main road and either walk 3km into the village or rent a bicycle for Rs 10/hour. There are a few buses (No. 2/26/30) into the village, but not frequent. Vijayalaya Cholisvaram is a 10th century temple on top of a rocky hill with two tiny ponds on its premises. This soothing ASI site provides an insight into 10th century sculptures. A Muslim tomb is inside a cave near the temple and there is more than one cave to be explored. Indecipherable scriptures are visible on the rocks in ancient Tamil. One of the ponds is believed to have a small temple inside, but water never dries up as per the locals.

Tamil Nadu has not tapped the potential of tourism yet. There are excellent locations, especially on the beaches, for low budget home stays (family run guest houses). Hope the youth realize the potential and come up with new accommodations in a sustainable model, boosting the local economy and protecting the ecology. Bicycle tours could be another business, flat areas and good roads make it ideal for cycling. Rappelling and cave exploration – options for the intrepid on the rocky hills all around the state.

Monday 11 February 2013

Rameswaram - The Temple Island

Apart from religious, geographical and political reasons draw attention to Rameswaram. Being the easiest way to reach Sri Lanka, it is present in epics, travelogues and news. Rameswaram stretches to Sri Lanka with tiny uninhabited sand banks in Gulf of Mannar. At an average elevation of 32m, this tiny island is connected by Pamban road-rail bridge across the sea (Pamban Strait) to main land India. The rail bridge was constructed in 1913 and vying for heritage status from UNESCO. After the devastating cyclone in 1964 the meter gauge rail from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi was abandoned. You could buy a train ticket to Dhanushkodi and cross to Sri Lanka by boat. I had met Terry, an adventurous backpacker from Hawaii who swam across this sea in 1973. The 2.06km long road bridge was opened in 1988 -the first sea bridge in India and heavily endorsed by Sankar Cements in their ads circa 90s.

Rameswaram is easily reachable from Madurai by bus (Rs 100, 173km, 4hrs). There are three bus stands in Madurai, you need to ride bus number C4 to Mattu Thavani bus terminal from Periyar bus stand to get long distance buses. Tamil Nadu buses and roads offer comfortable trips sans the fierce stench of urine at the bus stations. Once you reach the Rameswaram bus station, a shuttle bus (No. 1 or 2, Rs 9) drops you on the streets around Ramanathaswamy Temple - where Rama worshipped Vishnu- both Shivaites and Vaishnavites visit this temple. Being a amavasi (new moon) weekend, there were large crowds. We managed to get bed at one of the cheapies -Hotel Sethu Maharaja, Middle St (T 9894621271/ 04753 221271,, d/tr Rs 524/715). The next door Saravana Bhavan dishes up dosa and vegetarian meals.

Visiting the temple's expansive corridors decorated with stone sculptures and pillars need at least two hours. The 22 theerthams (ponds) around the temple offer devotees an opportunity to shower in holy waters (Rs 25). Only one of the theertham is really large and tranquil if seminude men are not drying their clothes there. There are enclosed cabins to change to dry clothes before you enter inner sanctums for darshan- off limits to non Hindus.
You can rent a bicycle for Rs 10/hr for a ride to the light house through the least crowded road passing the Agnitheertham (devotees perform the rituals for  forefathers here) on your right side. Light house is around 5km away and this road along the beach being deserted, plan to return before it gets dark. Check the rattling old cycles thoroughly before you sign-up. There is a jolly boat ride for Rs 60 for the tourists at the sea notable for the absence of waves.  Buy the tickets from the counter near Hotel TamilNadu.

Dhanushkodi is 20km away, bus number 3 and 6 (Rs 10, 30min) frequently run after 8am from the eastern entrance. The railway station is on this route and after tiny villages the road seems to be endlessly straight. There are a few fishing hamlets with thatched houses at Dhanushkodi. The bus stops where the motorable road ends. You need to take a chaotic ride aboard a sand eating, rusty Mahindra van - Rs 100 for a round trip until the remains of the old railway station. Try to board the van with seats rather than the goods carrier with wooden seats. They start when they get 20 passengers or Rs 2000 and the service stops at dusk. The ride through sand and sea is enjoyable while the driver maneuvering using the after market 4wheel drive. The remains of the railway station, church, temples  and other buildings are visible when you walk around after the 30min ride. The bluish green sea on either sides -Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal - has strong waves and warning signs keep you away from swimming. Not much rebuilding happened at highly corrosive Dhanushkodi after the cyclone sans a school, maybe it was not accessible during the LTTE days. Until the cyclone this was the administrative as well as commercial hub which shifted to Rameswaram later. Mani Ratnam captured the beauty of this island in his Tamil flick 'Kannathil Muthamittal' song - Nenjil- story of civil war in Sri Lanka.

Madurai - cultural capital of Tamil Nadu


 Tamil Nadu can not say 'NO' to Hindi anymore, most of the work force at the hotels and restaurants are from Bihar/Orissa and employers speak Hindi. Heading east  from Cherthala to Kottayam  (1hr, Rs.23) crossing the mountains at Kumily (3hr, Rs.43)-Theni (90min, Rs.35) we reached Madurai (90 min, Rs.32) by 4pm. From Arappalayam Bus Stand take bus number 77 to Periyar bus stand, close to Madurai Junction railway station. At walkable distance West Perumal Maistry Street has a line of budget hotels and restaurants. Look for a room away from the street, vehicle noise and dogs are nightmarish. Hotel Grands Central, 47-48, West Parumal Maisty St. (Tel: 9043133312, dbl Rs.550-770) with clean rooms, bucket shower is central if not grand. Next door Sabareesh Restaurant offers authentic Tamil Tiffin with multi-chutney and finger-licking meals for Rs 70. Don't miss the black and white photographs on the walls of Madurai from 1800s. Cheaper lodges are close to the west tower -one of 12 gopurams of Meenakshi Temple, vehicles are not allowed on this street. Anyone you meet will have a non-invasive business interest to sell you a saree or a taxi.

Madurai got its name from "Madhurapuri" -divine nectar from tangled locks of Siva fell here. Pandiyas founded Tamil Sangam for literature- Silapathikaram thus written. Vijayanagara dynasty employed Nayaks who constructed Meenakshi Amman Temple in 16th century. Hope temples will open the doors to all, being more secular. We visited the Meenakshi temple in the evening and morning, walking around this marvellous architecture. 1000 pillared hall and the tranquil pond known as Pottramarai Kulam around the sanctums are the major attractions for non-Hindus.
Ride bus number C3/75/700 to Tallakulam (Rs 9, 30min) from Periyar bus stand to visit  Gandhi  Memorial Museum (Friday holiday) adjacent to an old exhibition pavilion know as tamukkam. Dhoti worn by Gandhiji at the time of assassination is the main attraction. Did you know Gandhiji started wearing dhoti when he was in Madurai? Government Museum on the same grounds has ancient Tamil scriptures, an employee was polishing using kerosene. Bookshop has books on Gandhi, Aurobindo and Yoga in Tamil,  English and few foreign languages.

Tirumalai Nayak Palace is 10min by foot from Meenakshi Temple or you can ride bus number C4. One fourth of the original palace remains today, partially due to the new palace erected by Nayak's grandson at Trichy using parts pulled down from this palace. Divided into two parts, Swarga Vilas and Ranga Vilas huge, huge and tall pillars decorate this architectural wonder. Light and sound show (Rs 50) scheduled to run at 6.45pm everyday. Mani Ratnam movies Bombay (Kehna hi kya) and Guru (Tera bina)  song sequences are shot here.

Mariamman Theppakkulam is easily reachable by bus number C4 (Rs.11, 30min), famous for Theppam festival celebrated on full moon of Tamil month Thai (Jan/Feb). When we visited it was dry without a drop of water, thanks to the missing monsoon last year. The structure at the centre houses a small temple. The festivals in Madurai,  especially Chithirai festival - marriage of Meenakshi to Sundereswar, are magnificent with humongous chariots, Kavadiyattam, Thavil and peacock dancers strolling around the six hectare temple complex.

Monday 4 February 2013

Kollam to Alleppey - National Waterway 3


Varkala: Maybe the most popular among foreign backpackers, Varkala is attracting more crowds than Kovalam in the last 10years, though the beach is very narrow and surrounded by cliffs. There are many options for accommodation and restaurants, catering to the needs of backpackers. At the south cliff, SaMudra (Tel 9847184462, dbl Rs1500) offers trees and peace! Yoga classes/meditation/reiki/ayurveda –you name it, you get it here. German Bakery near the parking lot offers masala tea, croissant, used books and almost everything. Friendly owner Binu Joseph ( 9846348943) can arrange accommodation. His brother teaches Yoga at McLoedGanj, Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh. Surf boards are available on rent Rs 50 or 100 depending on the demand. The waves are strong and the seabed is not even, be careful and follow the instructions of the life guards. Varkala train station is just 2km away, and you can get frequent buses to Kollam, it takes 1.5hrs by road. Avoid weekends and holidays if you intend to get sun tanned in a bikini to stay away from gawkers.

Kollam: 70km away from the state capital Tiruvananthapuram, Kollam is famous for fishing harbours and cashew factories. With Arabian Sea at west and Western Ghats at east bordering Tamil Nadu, this bustling district offers a lot to travellers- less hurried backwater cruises and beaches. Be sensitive in dressing at the beaches, not so bikini-friendly.

When you reach Kollam by KSRTC buses, walk to DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council) office next to the boat jetty (docking station for boats). DTPC offers well organized backwater cruises at different price levels. Cruising through Ashtamudi Lake, named after the eight channels leading to Arabian Sea, in a houseboat is a pleasant experience. The advantage is that, you don’t need to haggle with the agents. A single bed room boat for a 22hrs See-Sleep cruise will cost Rs 7000 and a two bed room will cost Rs 9000. Check in at 11am and checkout next morning at 9am. Lunch, dinner, breakfast included. A cheaper option will be to go for a 4hr cruise to Munroe Island, Rs 400 per person- there are two trips 9am and 2pm, knowledgeable guide will be accompanying you. Contact Arshaj Dev 9847090111 for more details, he works for DTPC as a guide. For a shoestring budget traveller, taking a local mass transport boat for less than Rs 10 will be ideal, less touristy and more real life.


For an approved homestay near Thirumullavaram beach for Rs 600, the friendly staff at DTPC office can make bookings (Tel 0474 2745625/2750170, Avoid staying inside the town, mosquitoes and noise permeate to keep you awake. Unlike the auto drivers in North Kerala, a bit og haggling and fixing the price upfront is required at Kollam. Ask the staff to hire an auto for you, you will not be charged double the normal price.
The light house at Thangassery is 15min from bus station and open to visitors till 5:30pm. Strolling up to Residency Bungalow built by Lord Munroe and walking around sprawling Ashraamam grounds is ideal for an evening. Adventure park behind Residency Bungalow offers backwater views in the cool shade of green trees. Mermaid statue at Kollam beach is impressive; otherwise there is nothing to see here except the fishermen and filthy fish market.

Kollam-Alleppey Boat : The most comfortable mode of transport for us is a boat. No turbulence, potholes, jolts. One of the oldest trade route and inland waterway, Kollam-Alappuzha was a bustling route until circa 1940. KSWTD (Kerala State Water Transport Department) runs two double decked boats between Alappuzha and Kollam – starting at 10:30am reaching the destination at 6:30pm. Call 0477 2252510 (Alappuzha) and 0474 2741211 (Kollam) for advance booking, 8hr trip costs Rs 300 per person. The service comes to a halt during peak Monsoon- July and August. The boat stops for lunch and evening snacks, a major stop en-route is at Amritapuri, 3hrs from Kollam- the abode of Amritandamayi, the cuddling mother. Known as National Waterway 3 and West Coast Canal the route is Ashtamudi Lake-Valiyavila-Kayamkulam Lake-Thottappally-Karumadi-Pallathuruthy, cruising through narrow canals choked with water hyson and sea-like vast lakes. You can spot many birds on the less inhabited shores of the canals. We were thrilled to watch the jelly fish of different sizes and turtle, which we had seen only on Discovery channel and the colourful animated movie - Finding Nemo. The friendly staff and very comfortable seats ensure you have a pleasant ride.

Alleppey: When you reach Alleppey, you will be surrounded by unscrupulous auto drivers. For accommodation, you can shop around the road on the other side of the canal opposite to the bus station. Behind bus station, Lemon Dew is handy (Tel 0477 2238495, 9895108332 dbl Rs 500), beware of mosquitoes. By the end of our boat trip, Andreas and Anette from Germany had become our good friends, thanks to our common interest in travel and Megha’s fluent German. They wanted to stay near the beach, so we hired an auto to Sea View Ward adjacent to the beach with many home stays. . An auto from the bus stand to the beach should cost no more than Rs 60. To reach here, head towards west from Finishing Point (houseboats are parked here) until you reach the beach. Sea Shore near Munnody Temple, run by Faizal and wife is backpackers’ favourite (Tel 9387812427/9605929988, dbl Rs 500). Shop around if the rooms are full, almost every house until Vijaya Park is a home stay. If you are not a beach person, you can stay near the backwaters. From Alleppey boat jetty, take a local boat to the jetty called Punchiri (Rs 3, 15min) and stay at River Side home stay.

After an elaborate dinner at Panoramic View resort south of the sea bridge, we bid adieu to Andreas and Anette. On Sunday, we met them for a guided tour to Kainakary to watch a houseboat built by my friend Babu. Relishing tea and masala vada at the local shop, we shared our travel stories, followed by dinner at the Toddy Shop (Kallu Shappu). We were amazed at Andrea’s in-depth knowledge about photography -  – a professional but humble photographer. Anette hails from a smalll Island in Sweden and multilingual –Danish, French, German, English... Strangers are friends we have not met yet!