This summer I spent 40 days exploring the southern state of Tamil Nadu and it has left me stunned – positively and not so positively. Although, I could have chosen a different time to be there and not when the incinerating might of the sun was leaving me with blisters and itchy skin besides leaving me drenched in my own sweat on certain nights!
|The joys of slow travel | Valparai, (May 2016)|
I have few scant memories from childhood of having travelled to the state. Perhaps that was the reason behind it assuming a spot in the list of places travelled to when I began charting my own routes and therefore, left mostly ignored. But that was only until the summer of 2016 when the impending return finally came through.
It, of course, began in and with Madurai…
Manamadurai to be precise, where I along with a friend spent 4 weeks volunteering our time with a local NGO. You can read all about that experience and my takeaways in an earlier post.
|With the students at Manitham | Manamadurai (April 2016)|
I would like to iterate that volunteering aids in ensuring that you have a more intimate relationship with the places you go to. It deepens what travel can offer by way of broadening our perspectives about the world we live in. It has been my own personal observation that as a people we are becoming a little too myopic for our own good. What I mean is that we imagine what we know to be the universal truth and take it one step further in applying it to everything around us. The fallacy of generalizations. As it turns out, there is no harm in letting go of our biases and prejudices – because even if we claim to have none (and I am one of those), experiences such as these help in un-numbing us! And sometimes that is all that is required.
While at Manamadurai, Madurai at a mere 50 kilometres away was visited too. Known as the ‘Athens of the East’ (at least by the government of Tamil Nadu), it is renowned for the Meenakshi Temple. Consecrated to an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the temple is an expansive complex bedecked with life-size statues, massive columns, and long hallways. The temple has four distinct entrances marked by four rajagopurams corresponding to the four directions each adorned with images of gods and goddesses. It leaves you awestruck, even if you like me understand very little about architecture. While the temple is mostly open to all, certain sections aren’t – for non-Hindus and foreigners. And with the exception of the mobile phone and wallet/purse, other valuables and belongings are required to be left at the entrance.
1.5 kilometres away from the Temple is the Thirumalai Nayak Palace. An impressive 17th-century structure, from what remains of it over the centuries given that part of it was destroyed by the grandson of the first ruler himself, it leaves you with an uncomfortable silence – especially since there is very little to glean from or even walk around it. There is a light and sound show that happens in the evenings though. The huge columns at a height of 20 metres and width of 4 metres do attest to the genius minds of an era bygone and give the structure a sense of grandeur.
Tip: When in Madurai, do not miss the opportunity to relish on parothas (which are unlike any you would find in any part of Tamil Nadu, let alone the country) and chug a tumbler of Jigarthanda.
Dhanushkodi (or what I call ‘The Boat Graveyard’), though visited about a year ago, was hard to skip especially since it was under 200 kilometres away from Manamadurai. There are regular buses and trains plying to another temple town of Rameswaram – from where Dhanushkodi is accessible by state-run transport buses. Unlike last year though, my return from Rameswaram happened a little before sunset and the splendour of chugging along the Pambam Brigde – India’s first sea bridge – was thoroughly savoured.
The island town that was wiped off the face of the earth after a cyclone struck it in the early 1960s, retains an allure – albeit a haunting one – of its own. The difference between my visit last year and this one was that much has happened on the infrastructural side of things – in that, the road to Dhanushkodi is nearing completion. One still has to board into a pre-paid Tempo Traveller where the driver doubles as a guide. You can read about my experience from last year here. And I have a feeling that as much as the completion of that road is a requirement in some sense, it is going to dramatically change the allure of Dhanushkodi that brought me back a second time.
On completing our volunteering stint in Manamadurai, we made our way to Thanjavur or Tanjore – known as the rice bowl of India and home to one of the largest temples – the Brihadeeshwara Temple.
The temple – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – completed 1000 years in 2010. It left me standing agape as I attempted to fathom how something this magnificent was designed and executed at such a colossal scale so many centuries ago. Non-mechanised and purely based on the human intellect in its rawest form, walking around the temple was a gentle reminder of just what we’ve been able to accomplish. Keep an eye to catch inscriptions on the wall (akin to the ones at the Qutub Minar in Delhi) as well as the intricate carvings and etchings along every structure within the temple complex.
The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, on the other hand, that belonged to the Bhonsle family who ruled Thanjavur from 1674 to 1855 is all sorts of things all at once – it’s exquisite in some places just as it is random and unkempt at others! There is an AV that is screened as a part of 7 sites your ticket permits you an entry to that I would recommend just so to make better sense of a history that is indeed very rich.
And if you are interested do drop by the crafts village that is slightly on the outside of the main town of Thanjavur. We were most delighted when an artisan walked us through the process of how Thanjavur paintings get made as well as explained the makings behind brass statues.
To make a Thanjavur painting, the outline of the image is first drawn by pencil. The gold is embossed by applying glue to the glittering foil and putting pressure on select sections within the drawing. The remaining spaces are then coloured. Very interestingly, the colours used are all natural i.e. prepared from flowers and leaves. The paintings are also accompanied with bead-work or even semi-precious stones. Looking at the finished pieces, it was hard to tell that it was nothing but natural colour and gold foil. This surely is a testament to the skill of the artisans.
Three days and an overnight train later, we were in Pondicherry. There is something to be said about first impressions when visiting a place. That morning very groggy from sleep as we walked from the railway station to Le Café in White Town, the air was a steady mix of calm and vibrant even as the sun was yet to make an appearance. I had been longing for the sea and starting from that moment for the next six days I felt at home. You can read about my experience of cycling through Pondicherry in this post.
Having arrived and departed from Thanjavur at midnight around a week ago, my friend and I were rather comfortable arriving in Salem at 10 PM. We had arranged for a pick-up through the hotel we were staying at in Yercaud. But 30 minutes into that journey, our vehicle was stopped at the check-post. We had to submit proof of identity and had cops questioning us on whether our parents knew where we were! This was a first for me in all this time of travel and solo travel. And as much as I can try and understand perhaps the need to be cautious and concerned around the safety of women, there is something awkward and even a tad bit annoying about being interrogated in that manner. It seemed to connote that ‘you have no business travelling so late especially since you are accompanied by a man!’
|There is no such thing as too much tea | Valparai (May 2016)|
But 20 hairpin bends up and a good night’s sleep later, Yercaud – located at an altitude of 4970 feet above sea level – seemed like just the thing the doctor had prescribed. My skin allergies that had been acting up since I got to Madurai – thanks to the blistering heat – were finally relieved we were at a hill station. The onset of the monsoons added just the kind of touch to the weather that I couldn’t be any more grateful for. The local sights are akin – in nomenclature – to those one comes across at most hill stations – think <insert name> Point and <insert name> Seat. But the views of the valleys and the surrounding hilltops are ravishing. Do stop by at the Botanical Garden – it was my first at seeing an insectivores plant years after they filled my imagination from reading about them in my science textbooks from school. P.S.: The insectivores plant was dead, btw!
Twenty hairpin bends down and forty hairpin bends up with four state-run buses changed en-route, we were at Valparai. Lower in altitude at 3500 feet, everywhere you cast your eyes in Valparai it is only tea gardens owned by private folk such as the Tatas – that have come at the cost of slashing down the jungles of the Annamalai in the Western Ghats. But the greens compensate somehow – or at least that is what I, an urbanite from the concrete jungle tells herself.
|Lion Tail Macaque | Valparai (May 2016)|
Valparai is rich in wildlife. Our journey at the foothills – prior to commencing on that 40 hairpin bend journey – began with a sighting of elephants not too far away from the main road. The next day after being driven around to some of the local sights while we were walking through the jungles, we spotted the Lion Tail Macaque family ripping jackfruits with their bare hands for brunch. I also had a blink and miss sighting of the Indian Giant Squirrel too. No luck with the hornbills though. And that thing about shinrin-yoku is true. I haven’t felt as purged of my weariness as I did in those two days at Valparai. In my head, the phrase ‘enchanted forest’ now has a Google pin I can associate with to.
Last year, I made my third visit to Kanyakumari. And this year while being very much in the vicinity, I was sure I didn’t particularly want to ‘drop in’ yet again. But while in Trivandrum, my friend’s mother drove us to places within the district of Kanyakumari and I was left stumped. Stumped because as it turns out there is always something hidden and unexplored to a place in spite of the number of times you’ve been there before! First up was the Thirparappu Falls is where the Kodyar River cascades down from a height of 50 feet while burgeoning at its seams at 300 feet to create something so magnificent that it dominates the landscape with that fervour for close to seven months a year. The Mathur Hanging Bridge (Aqueduct) is the longest and the highest of its kind in all of south-east Asia and was constructed in 1966 as a drought relief measure with the purpose of carrying water for irrigation from an elevated level of one hill to another. Standing atop I saw nothing but the treetops in that lush green landscape. And as if on cue then, it started to pour. Padmanabhapuram Palace constructed around 1601 AD, is Asia’s largest wooden palace. However, in 1795 the capital of Travancore was shifted from here to Thiruvananthapuram, and the place lost its former glory. The palace complex continues to be one of the best examples of traditional Kerala architecture. #FunFact: The Palace though surrounded entirely by the State of Tamil Nadu is still part of Kerala and the land and Palace belongs to the Government of Kerala.
To think that for the past month or so I couldn’t get myself to write anything and here I am 2000+ words later nodding in agreement with Ibn Battuta who said: “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
You can read all about how I was able to afford my three month long travel stint in the post ‘How I Travelled 90 Days in India under 90,000 Rupees’
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