Exploring Tamil Nadu: Part 2 – Rameshwaram

We were supposed to be traveling alongside the river the entire journey to Rameshwaram. At least, that’s what Google maps said. Real life is a different story. There is a river, as seen by the basic overgrown with plants. But either lack of rains or a dam somewhere has stopped the water, making parts of the basin slushy and the rest barren.

Barren soon became the word of the day as we headed closer to Rameshwaram. The landscape grew flatter and more barren. There were long stretches where you could see miles on either side, and there was barely a bush in sight. Brick kilns were common, and progress was slow because the road remained a narrow two-lane ‘highway’.

Rameshwaram was a barely ignored ‘second-grade township’ in Tamil Nadu, and their sole claim to fame was the legend that stated Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka from here to rescue Sita, his wife. There’s also a place that Hanuman supposedly leaped from to reach Sri Lanka.

The town’s modern claim to fame is one of India’s most renowned personalities & former President, Abdul Kalam.

 

Salt basins and palm trees are common as you get closer to Rameshwaram, almost frightening in its starkness and flatness.

Soon, the road began to narrow again and we were on the famous Pamban Bridge.

The bridge was first a railway bridge only, built in 1914, connecting the island town of Rameshwaram to the mainland.

Rameshwaram is actually located on Pamban Island. The railway bridge was India’s first sea bridge of any sort, and the longest till the Bandra-Worli Sea Link displaced it in 2010. A road bridge was constructed parallel to the rail bridge in 1988.

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I was super thrilled by the colours of the ocean as we got on the road bridge, and despite multiple “No Stopping” signs that every other car was ignoring, we pulled over to take photographs.

As I often say, a photographer sometimes just clicks the shutter. Nature does the rest. Right as I ran over to the side with my camera, a train was on the bridge. There are very few trains, so it was a stroke of luck that I got to shoot it, and in such awesome light conditions. The wind is strong enough to knock you back a couple of steps, so I had to struggle to keep my bandanna on and shoot at the same time. The ocean looks wild, with a multitude of hues of blue that I’d last seen on the Australian coast.

We then wandered over to the other side of the bridge, which looks like an entirely different world. The colours are still vivid and varied, but the ocean is calm and serene. Infact, it looks like a postcard, with fishing boats bobbing gently in the water, and quaint little huts on the beach.

***

The town of Rameshwaram is literally a back-of-beyond town in Tamil Nadu. Reading the stories of Kalam gives one a picture of the town about 50 years ago, and seems like it has only progressed a little since then.

Since the primary visitors here were temple devotees, who preferred simplicity, the infrastructure is built to accommodate that.

It means basic hotels, with mostly vegetarian restaurants.

I ended up signing up at the most fanciest place, since that was the only one with car park, and of course, we didn’t really want to rough it out.

The sense of ‘flat & straight’ continued past the bridge, almost seeming like we didn’t move the steering at all, except to avoid pedestrians crossing the street.

It was close to 4.00 PM by the time we arrived in town, and our first concern was to find a place that served something beyond the typical idli & dosa fare popular in the region. Luckily, we passed a “Sea Star Hotel” with a massive board sporting photographs of various indistinct dishes.

The hotel turned out to be THE fanciest hotel in the place, at least from the outside. On checking in, we realised it was still for the devotees who came to the temple but didn’t want to rough it out. The food was vegetarian, the hallways had the smell of incense and decorations of flowers, and our welcome booklet included the various times of aartis and poojas happening in town.

We had two destinations here: Dhanushkodi, located about 20-odd kms from Rameshwaram and the newly-inaguarated museum of President Kalam.

It was close to dusk by the time we started out to Dhanushkodi. The moment you veer out of Rameshwaram, the bleakness starts. Salt marshes on both sides of the road, and water that seems like land.

Dhanushkodi was declared a Ghost Town after it was badly hit by a cyclone in 1964. Exposed on all sides, there are little scrub bushes that offer no protection from the wind. The visibility is great, and the road straight & long enough to land a plane.

All the earlier research I’d done indicated that you couldn’t go right till the tip in a car, and would need to rent a jeep or a 4×4. But to our surprise, the road continued. Unfortunately, there are cops patrolling the area and no people are allowed beyond the point after 6.00 PM, and we had to turn back.

(To Be Continued)

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Travel Tales: Exploring Tamil Nadu (Story 1)

Most of us know Tamil as a language. We know Tamil Nadu as a state in India. But if you ask a native of the land, they’ll tell you that Tamil is not just a language or state. It goes beyond geographical and language identities. Tamil is a culture. A culture that has a heritage of several centuries and has grown while keeping its inherent identity intact.

Most of my exposure to Tamil Nadu has been primarily Chennai, the modern capital of Tamil Nadu. And of course, a few tourist towns like Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry. I’ve driven past several other towns, not really stopping to explore. I’m familiar with the language, and some aspects of the culture – being a South Indian who has several friends from this identity – but the history is buried in the temples, the local lingo and the streets.

The first stop this time was at Madurai, the temple city of Tamil Nadu. The town had been on the list for a long, long time, especially the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.

The temple, which was supposedly built before the 7th Century AD, features in Tamil literature predominantly. The temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. The temple was repeatedly plundered in the 14th Century by various Mughal armies, and had to be restored in 16th Century. There are a total of 14 gopurams, one of which is seen in the photograph.

Starting off:

It is Diwali, and we drive on the highway looking at cracker bursting in the sky all through. The streets of Madurai are empty, even though it is barely 7.30 PM. We wonder if Diwali is big in Madurai. For the night, on our agenda, are three important places:

  • Amma Mess – known for its bone-marrow omelette
  • Arumugam Mess – Known for great meat dishes
  • Chandran Mess – Ditto
  • Jigar Thanda – a sweet delicacy of the region

The hotel is just a few metres away from all these places (What luck!) and we are set to try out all these and more in a few minutes. Except, when we get there, the street is entirely deserted and everything is shut. Turns out, Diwali is big in Madurai and no meat-serving place is open (lesson for the future!)

The hotel still serves meat, we figure, and are about to turn back when we catch sight of the bright, LED lights of a shop! It says “Jigar Thanda – Since 1952”. We figure we could tick one item off the list, and grab two specials. The place was fairly small and crowded with families, so we figure we hit on the authentic place.

Except, there is another place a few metres ahead and they too claim to be from the 50s. A quick google search tells us that the sweet drink is old, and there are several such places. The drink itself – a mix of kulfi, with an extreme dose of sweetness. Google tells us it has almonds and a few other things but all I can taste is cloying sweetness!

Day 2: We check out early and head towards the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. It is barely 10.00 AM in October, and the temperatures are hovering in the late 30s. The streets leading to the temple are quite narrow, and mostly have small garages and mechanic shops. All the roads that maps tell us to take are clogged, and we eventually end up at the ‘designated parking lot’ – which is basically a large, empty plot. The car will be hot enough to cook mutton when we return!

We reach the East Gateway. Opposite to the temple complex is another large structure, which currently holds some shops. Surprised that these ancient structures are still being used, we wander around a bit before deciding to explore it later. They are, after all, just shops.

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Tourism Boards have done their bit, and there are metal detectors at the entry of each gate.

There is also a free, safe service wherein you can leave your footwear, surrounded by notice boards that tell you not to tip the people behind the counter since they are paid.

We push our way through the crowds and leave our slippers and head to the entry only to be told that since I’m carrying a DSLR, we’ve to enter from the next gate.

Now, there were boards that said no cameras allowed but I figured I could tell them I’m gonna keep it in my bag. I wasn’t willing to walk all the way back to the car and dump in there, nor was I willing to leave my expensive gear at the footwear counter.

So, we head to the next gate, and head to the men’s & women’s lines respectively. I ask the cop on duty there if I can take my camera and that I won’t shoot, and he tells me to go back in and check it in the ‘locker’. The guy at the locker asks me if I have anything ‘important’ in my backpack and I say “Camera!”. So he tells me that I’ve to use the ‘special locker’ which costs 5 bucks instead of the simple ‘bag check-in counter’ that costs two bucks. Right.

The “Special Locker” is a tall metal locker with lopsided doors that even I could break with a firm push. The lady meticulously writes down the contents of my bag and asks me the value of the goods. Ummm… I’ve a fantastic DSLR + A couple of lenses, each worth a lakh and some basic accessories. Value? Maybe around 3 lakh rupees.

But, if I tell her the value is 3 lakhs, what if that’s cause for temptation? If I downplay it and lose it, what could be the flip side? In the end, I murmur something, collect my token, shout out a silent prayer to Goddess Meenakshi and head into the temple.

The difference is apparent the moment you step into the cool arches of the temple. The architecture, which has withstood centuries of travails, is built for the weather. High ceilings, heavy stones that can keep the stone out. The entryway has more shops, offering flowers, coconuts etc for the Goddess and other knick knacks.

The entry hallway is immensely long, and you can just about see the arches one after the other. The photographer in me in crying for a photograph, but I think one of the cops are gonna come & snatch the phone away. I get a couple of shots anyway!

We finally enter the actual Temple complex, with the Pond With The Golden Lotus and the wonderful gopura, only to see plenty of people happily taking selfies & photographs.

(Minor Rant: What’s the big deal about keeping cameras out in the age of super phones that have fantastic cameras? They don’t say photography not allowed. They only say “cameras not allowed.” One part of what I will call Tamil logic that eludes me!)

Tamil legends state that the pool could judge the worth of a new piece of literature. Authors place their works here. The good ones float and the poor ones sink.

The walls are decorated with beautiful scenes from Ramayana. If we had the time, we’d explore it panel-by-panel but I’m in a hurry to see the rest of the temple.

One section of the temple is locked (and as always, it evokes more curiosity). Different parts are dedicated to different Gods, and the sculptures / shrines of the smaller deities gleam like they were just carved & polished.

The Kambatadi Mandapam (“Hall of Temple Tree”) with its seated Nandi & a golden pillar has various manifestations of Shiva carved in stone. It also has the famous “Marriage of Meenakshi” sculpture. According to Wikipedia, the sculptures of Shiva and Kali are pelted with balls of ghee by devotees, which accounts for that fantastic shine. The tall golden pillar apparently signifies the human backbone.

We go back into the thousand-pillar hall, studying some of the sculptures. Each pillar is supposed to have a different one, and we find one with Vishnu (or one avatar of him) and several other gods & demi-gods. It seems like every single Indian god and their avatar has a place in this massive temple!

We choose not to go into the inner sanctum, because of lines that were longer than Black Friday lines. We figure we can live without having seen the actual statue, with a little bit of regret.

For more photographs, visit here.

Done with the temple, we hurried back, hoping that the food part of the trip could be completed and the mess’ would be open. No such luck. Everything remained firmly closed, and we had to eat at a smaller but pretty decent place right next door. The biryani was decent, so was the fish fry but it was no bone marrow omelette.

Thus done, we move to the next part of the trip – Rameshwaram with its famous Pamban Bridge, and India’s ghost town, Dhanushkodi – also the place from where Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita.

Travel The World Under $5000: Myth or Reality?

When I was 21, I wanted to travel the world. Well, that dream was the same since I was about 5 years ago and I found that the world extended beyond my road corner. Except at the age of 21, I was intent on finding a way to pay my way to travel the world.

Blogging was yet to become a full-time profession but there were fascinating travel blogs around any way and they all talked about ‘How to travel the world under $1000’ or ‘Quit Your Job & Travel The World’. But honestly, none of these seemed quite plausible at the moment. It required savings, planning and a whole bunch of other things, including one crucial element – a passport that allowed visa on arrival to a lot of countries. And that typically meant a U.S. or a European passport. Strike 1.

Secondly, coming from a country whose currency was at a disadvantage to the dollar, $5000 was a hell lot of money. At the average conversion rate of 65 bucks to a dollar, that was over 3 lakh Indian rupees. That’s the entire year’s salary of a starter job. So when I did the math, I realised that these blogs were written for people who were talking in $$$. Strike 2.

I needed an entirely new system for people like me. The ones who did not have the advantage of holding passports that entailed visa on arrival to all the cool places. The ones where airlines were yet to introduce the concept of ‘air miles’, let alone crazy last-minute deals.

My typical travel trip? Struggle to get a last minute train or bus ticket to a place that wasn’t longer than 12 hours. Then struggle to get a room that suck away my week-long budget and then fit in the rest. But I’m not complaining. I found some awesome deals, learnt to bargain (sorta) and had some great experiences.

Of course, I couldn’t ever fly off to Spain because I found a cheap airline ticket. I had to get a visa etc. But there was so much more to do here!

I discovered hidden cafes in Goa. Nearly missed my train in Hampi and then slept the rest of the day waiting for the train on the dusty platform. I found fantastic beach-side shacks that offered a great view of the ocean but nothing else in terms of comfort.

Traveling internationally as a U.S, U.K or European passport holder is a very different story from traveling as an Asian. We are more budget conscious (and naturally develop a calculator in your head when you’ve to figure out how much exactly you are paying for that slice of pizza in euros). So as an Indian, the under $5000 travel, did seem like a myth.

 

Catching the travel bug…

Once you catch the travel bug, there really isn’t a permanent cure. You just have to live with it, making the best of the situation, cramming in trips when you can and pretending to be sane the rest of the time.

For me, it creeps up slowly. One morning I wake up and there is this image in my head of a place, or a name, and I know I must simply go there. There is no reason to it… which is how I came up with Istanbul and Budapest. It was just there one morning. And I didn’t even try to make sense of it.

Right now, it is the beach. I know it is summer and bleaching hot. It will be sticky and humid and roasting. Which makes me hesitate. But ever since a friend put beaches in my head, there have been beautiful images of the cool breeze and the sun and the shimmering water in my head.

It isn’t beach sports, swimming in the ocean etc that attracts me most to it. It is just… the ocean itself. The entire blue/green/gray/orange-reflecting/purple-hued water. The ocean always contained a mystery that I can never put into words. So now I can dream of myself there… spacing out.

And spacing out right now is much required. I am realising how many hours exist in a day and I am working all through them and there is still more left. I don’t mind the work. But the timing could’ve been better, for various reasons.

Of course, now the question is also – what counts as a getaway and what should be the budget? I’m really really trying to budget myself  (not too successfully, but I’m trying, oui?)

Song of the day: We are going to Ibiza: Vengaboys (Party time people 🙂

Call for Help

She is 6  months old.

She was abandoned by her mother, then adopted by the Forest Department officials who then ran out of space and money and is now living in a room in a kind family’s home. The room is smaller than those places we lived in during our college days…

The family is loving and caring and they manage to feed her decently as well.

But that is not where she should be. She should be in the wild, running free. But it might be too late… she is like a house cat. So she would need help to be rehabilitated into the wild. A zoo would be a good option except no zoo in India has the space to take her.

There are people who are willing to “adopt” her and even work with rehabilitating her into the wild, except that needs government approval – which we are not getting. Who knows why!

Would really appreciate anyone putting me in touch with anyone who could help. Or pass on the message till it reaches someone who can help. Let’s get her home.

In the Jungle…

Two days in nature makes me all the more conscious that Bangalore is really crowded. There were forests, there were coffee plants and birds I did not know the names of flying around. And no sound of humans. They were around of course… it was a home stay…

But we were lucky enough to get the corner cottage, with a fabulous view of trees and nothing but trees. I wished a million times for a better lens so I could capture all those fantastic birds… and maybe google them later and figure out those were what I saw. Some of them were so tiny and so fast that I would wonder if that is what I saw exactly…

It was peaceful. No time for ruminations and thoughts, like I usually do in places like this. I didn’t do much but eat and sleep and make an attempt at being healthy by a bit of trekking… mostly, we drove around, when we felt like dragging ourselves out of the cottage. I didn’t much feel the need to, except at moments when my conscience said I was at a new place and had to do something to make it worthwhile.

I honestly didn’t think I could survive for two days with just one person. I need people, conversation… or failing that, technology. My mobile barely worked, which meant no email or facebook either. And it seemed rude to be on the phone when there were just two of us. I felt a little bit like Miranda from SNTC at one point. But then the difference here was when I got bored, I could say I was bored… or reaching a point where I was bored.

Of course, the nights got a little noisier as the neighbouring cottage had some really loud boys who were playing “teen patti” or some version of it. They argued, taught each other, bet a lot of money, drank and threw all their cigarette and chips packets into the pretty bush in front of the cottage – which was all I could see of their place. I didn’t even get a look at who was there, except for the feet of one guy, which kept dangling out of the porch wall… he had clean feet.

There were waterfalls… a pleasant trek… where some genius had built a little metal ramp leading right up to the fall. So people could strip and pretty much take a bath underneath the fall – which is what they did. Mostly men… who wore their underwear like they really were in their bathrooms… my friend tells me earlier there was merely half a ramp so you could dive into the pool. I am not sure which is better… Of course, nobody who was going there for first time would expect such a glorious situation, so no one was carrying extra clothes. Which meant – underwear. Indian men don’t consider that a really private garment when there is water involved.

So we faced the other way, put our feet in the ice cold water, blocked our minds to the activities below and enjoyed an hour of peace.

(For more photos, click here)

Song of the day: In the jungle

Driving in Bangalore

… is a nightmare.

I had never really taken my car out in peak hour traffic. Of yes, there were those random weekends when i’d to get somewhere… but I was neither tired, nor was everyone else in a hurry… or I had people in the car with me… or the excitement of taking the car out for the first time. So discounting all that, I took the car out for the first time yesterday during peak hour traffic.

I knew when I got the car out in the morning I should’ve taken my bike. The wind was still a little cool and the sun just warming up to bake us all and I just took the car because my back hurt from riding the distance and I needed a new helmet.

So at 6.05 PM I finally headed out of the office. The road a little fuller than I was used to but having gotten adept at squeezing at whatever possible openings, I managed to get myself to the first bottleneck. I saw a huge Scorpio trying to make a u-turn – which was basically a spot where people had pulled out the stones to make some turns easier for them (read: illegal). The space wasn’t enough to squeeze in my little car, let alone that monster but the guy was determined, despite blocking the traffic for 5 minutes.

5 minutes doesn’t seem like much in the scheme of things but in peak hour traffic, the entire 3 km road can back up, which is what happened now. People leaned on the horn as they craned their necks to see what was happening. Bikes squeezed in anywhere they could – the pavement, the 2 inch of space between cars and buses. What was the hurry? Home is all they had to go! I turned up my music and stopped, figuring they would move when they do.

Cell phones – aren’t they banned when you are driving?

Such rules absolutely doesn’t seem to apply to people. Nor have they heard of lanyards, bluetooth or any such thing. So the phone rings – and I bet it is on vibrate mode – and the guy on the bike struggles one-handed to pull out the cell from the pocket of his overtight jeans… then he keeps on driving (read: zigzagging all across the road) while he shoves the phone in his helmet or worse, just starts talking like he is walking somewhere. And then he sees a cop at the end of the road on the right side and figures if he switches to the left side, the cop won’t see him or won’t bother stopping him (is it worse that this actually works). So he suddenly cuts across the road, despite what cars and bikes are coming. I mean, come on, why wouldn’t people stop for him. Honking doesn’t work. They’ve some device in their ears that just blocks out all such stupid noise.

So I went a little crazy drove almost the rest of the way with one hand on the horn. Apparently a long drawn blast of the horn does get people’s attention. Of course, most of the glances I got were of the “what are you getting worked up about” sorts. This is the way we drive apparently. With no order, no  regard to rules, squeezing through wherever we can find a gap.

Doesn’t it occur to anyone that it would be so much simpler if people followed lane discipline? At least on the main roads. Stick to the right if you are going right. Do not cross over all the way from the right to the left just as the light turns green and zoom across, cutting everyone off. Morons!

And there are roads which are dug up, or parts of a road which are dug up without a warning… So you manage to beat the traffic, overtake a moron talking on a cell hone from the left and are about to zoom when you have to break suddenly – and pray  you won’t be rear ended – because some idiot has decided to dig up the manhole and leave it open and the only on that is a piece of some shrub sticking out of it. And then you spend the next 15 minutes trying to head back into the traffic lane, trying to be polite with your indicator on… hoping some good soul will slow down and let you back into the traffic.

Of course such good souls are rarely present, which means you pull your socks up, put that hand back on the horn and swing into traffic, praying you won’t get slammed. Little scratches are perfectly acceptable. You can choose to stop and argue with the guy – creating a little more traffic but venting your day’s frustration – or shrug and just keep going.

I’m sure there is some God watching all those on the road. How else would you explain that cars don’t get dented (much) or there are as many rear-ending accidents as there should’ve been?

I finally managed to pull up outside my house, the car in pretty much the same state as I took it out but my mind completely frazzled with all the close calls. And I figured till i get used to the fact that the car next to me is closer than the two seats in my car and that is normal, the car stays in the garage.

Song of the day: Willie Nelson – On the Road Again