Saturday, 10 November 2012

Chola land and others..... a quick round through Tanjore, Darasuram, Karaikudi, Rameswaram and Madurai

Had a quick trip recently: through the heartlands of Cholas at Tanjore-Darasuram, the Chettiyar roots at Karaikudi, a whisker with Lanka at Rameswaram-Dhanushkodi and a revel of the greatest contribution of the Pandyas to mankind the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Was a full-fledged family trip of 5 adults 3 kids.

Chola dynasty is one among the most evolved and long lived dynasties India has seen. During its existence between 3rd century BC to 13th century AD – stretching its empire from Maldives in West  to Malay in East and Srilanka in South to Patna in North in its peak – it left some remarkable legacies for many generations to come. Tanjore-Darasuram is the heartland of Chola reminiscence with awe strucking symbols like the Brahadeeswara Temple or Airavateeswara Temple.

The night bus from Bangalore (KPN is well connected across TN) got us in Tanjore at around 5am. It helped that the bus stopped right in front of our hotel (Hotel Ramnath, ph 04362-226181, next to new bus stand – A decent budget hotel, new and clean. It also has a good veg-restaurant – Annapoorna – adjescent, serving wonderful masala dosas and pooris. Overall recommendable).

Had a long day ahead – planned to cover Brahadeeswara Temple, Palace, Royal Museum and Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjore and then off to Darasuram (~40 km) and Swamimalai enroute. Have to leave for Karaikudi same night. As i was trying to figure out for a cab, the manager of the hotel suggested that his brother is running a cab and he'll ask him to assist us. I had my apprehension, hence though I didn't refused the offer, tried to find one from outside just to realize that there are no taxi stand near the bus stand... It turned out that the manager's brother's (Tamilselvan) service was indeed good (9.30am to 8pm, 100+ Km, Rs.1200 for non-a/c indica).

Kept aside some 2 hrs for Brahadeeswara temple. But I soon realised, that was not enough... This is not a place to have a quick look and leave. One need to revel every piece of it to appreciate it – from a small design to each sculpture to each temple to the complex as a whole... The magic starts right from the entry arches (two arches), which befits the architectural marvels awaiting you inside. Don't miss the intricate carvings on the large arches – it's as if the rocks have softened it selves in the hands of those great sculptures to make such poetries. See it to believe... As I crossed the arches and entered the temple campus, I felt a blow of excitement seeing the large campus of temple architecture, in a bright golden scheme, each piece is a marvel by itself. The very thought that how man could make such profound symbols of art, culture and magic which could survive a good 1000 years without much of a change itself is exhilarating. Without doubt, Brahadeeswara Temple is not just another living temple, it straightaway takes us many centuries back, and one can feel the liveliness the temple might have had during its peak. It is an experience in itself.
First entrance to Brahadeeswara Temple

Carvings in Brahadeeswara Temple

Covered Tanjore palace and Saraswati Mahal Library in less than an hour. Though, the Royal Museum (all 3 in same campus) timing was up to 1 pm (then 4-6 pm) for the first half, at 12.30pm we could not find any one in the ticket counter and the entry door was closed. While palace can be given a miss, Saraswati Mahal Library (no photography) has some superb collection of very old palm leave manuscripts. Though the staff is doing thier best to maintain things there, I personally doubt whether these treasures are indeed preserved scientifically for the posterity. Had a quick round of the State run craft centre in the campus where some Tanjore paintings were spotted for sales.

At ~1 pm, Tamilselvan was eagerly waiting for us to ferry us to the next destination, Swamimalai. He promptly ignored our suggestion that we should have lunch before venturing further. Instead he advised there are good restaurants on the way, which we soon realised as nothing short than a mirage. The roads were just Ok. Whenever we remind, he keep consoling us that there is a hotel in next 10 min, which never came... At around 2.15 we could spot a small eatout near Thiruvalanjuli. The place was neat and may be since we were almost smelling our belly smoke, the food was tasty.

Around 2.45 pm we reached Swamimalai. The temple (Lord Karthikeya) was closed, but I guess we haven't lost anything much. The purpose of the visit was to explore the Sthapathis (master craftmen of bronze castings) of Swamimalai. They are a clan of bronze sculpturers – who are believed to be settled in Swamimalai since the time of Raja Raja Cholan – still follows the 1000's of years old lost-wax process. We assumed we could barge in to one of the many Sthapathi families in the town and hope to see a live demo of bronze sculpture making process. Surprisingly, we could not find any obvious sign of many such activities. So we just enquired in one of the pan shops on “how to find a Sthapathi”. We were incidentally standing right next to Devasenapathi/ Radhakrishna Sthapathi's residence and workshop. The genealogy of the Sthapathi's are well documented by the Census of India, which is proudly displayed in his office. He invited us to have a generous look at his workshop. The process follows a simple methodology where first a wax model of the sculpture is made. Later this model is well packed in clay (with a small hole below) and dried to set. The whole pack is subjected to high temperature as a result the wax melts and oozes out through the hole creating a void inside. Melted bronze (or other metals or alloys) are poured back in to the clay void and is allowed to set. Once ready, the outside clay is removed to get the sculpture which is later polished and finished. The whole process may take a few weeks. Impressed..., we ended up buying a couple of sculptures (Eg. A medium size Nataraja cost us ~ Rs.4000. The same size was costing 25-40% higher in shops in Tanjore/ Madurai which we cross checked later).

Darasuram is close by. We reached in half an hour. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, well preserved like the Brahadeeswara Temple in Tanjore. The 1000 odd years flown by after it was constructed made the surrounding land level raised slightly. Hence the temple is in fact a little below the surface. Yet another example of the magical Chola architecture, the temple has an amazing blend of stone art and mural paintings on its core structure, which is a rarity. The Chole temple paintings are believed to be drawn sing natural plant based colours during the construction of the structure while the plastering is still wet. When  the plastering dries, the paintings are permanently etched on it. The temple also has a stone Chariot wheel, but of course cannot match the grandeur of the ones found in Konark or Hampi. We enjoyed the architectural feast for about an hour. 
Blend of stone art and mural paintings in Darasuram Airavateeswara temple
It was 5.30 pm. We need to get back to Tanjore, scout for some Tanjore paintings, which we could not do in the morning and before it is too late, need to leave for Karaikudi where the night halt was planned. Just then a couple of local weavers lured us to the fact that this belt is also known for its excellent silk sarees. One of them, Venkatesan, was residing just next to the temple compound, so we thought to have a look at it nevertheless. The large loom was very much an integral part of their house itself and when we entered the house his wife was weaving a beautiful saree in an inviting ruby shade. Needless to say, we were bowled over instantly. In half an hour we left the place with an inventory of 4 sarees (of price range of Rs.1500 - 4000).

7.30 pm is indeed too late a time to figure out Tanjore paintings in Tanjore. To add our woes and surprise, when we enquired for “where to get Tanjore paintings” in some of the petty and not so petty shops, the looks clearly says that they are all hearing such a thing for the first time. After some search we located a couple of big shops right opposite the Palace. Both the places were very pricy. Determined, we kept our spirits up and suddenly spotted a small Tanjore painting shop which was about to close. Venkatesh (Ph: 04362-279990) was patient enough to aid our selection, explained the process of making these paintings and in fact shown us a couple of ones under making. More than painting, Tanjore paintings are in fact crafted on plywood and canvas using chalk powder, gum, stones, glass, metal, etc and of course paint. We zeroed in to a couple of paintings and had a hard bargain. Armed with the experience of Tanjore painting selection in the 2 big shops and the State craft centre inside the palace, we knew for sure we got a good quality stuff and a very decent price (a 15x10 inch cost us ~Rs.3700). I realised that the day has made a deep hole (sort of an unplanned hole, except for the paintings) in my pocket.

The mode of travel to Karaikudi was still not decided. As we understood, there are not many direct buses to Karaikudi from Tanjore and trains have odd timings. Weather was playing mischeif and time was odd, so we decided to go by cab. We requested Tamilselvan; happy to serve, he agreed to drop us in Karaikudi, a good 120 Km one way for ~Rs.2500. We had a quick bite from Annapurna and started around 9 pm.
It proved to be a wise decision as the rains started shortly. The road till Pudukottai (~70 Km from Tanjore) was good. But then on we could barely make out what is road and what is not. The heavy downpour limited the visibility as well. With great effort we reached Karaikudi at around 1 am. Though the hotel receptionist (Vasu, Hotel Nachiappa Palace, ph no: 04565-230077) was sensible enough to keep telling us the route, we were royally lost. One really good thing we found about TN is wherever you go, there will always be someone in the road, at any time of the day. Even at that wee hour, there was always someone to direct us in every junction. By 1.30 am we are in front of the hotel, but still searching for it! The board is barely visible as the hotel is in the first floor of local SBI branch. We were completely put-off seeing the reception in first floor (may be a 10x10 ft space, including a lift) as we were expecting some sizeable building going by the name of the hotel. But the priority now is to just hit the bed. We reached the first floor and found the whole setup pretty spacious. And whatever we needed (neat room, clean bathrooms, working a/c, hot water, towels, soaps, even a small pack of oil) was very much available in the room. I don’t think we can get anything better in Karaikudi (and for such a budget rate ~Rs.800/room).

We all had a good sleep, woke up leisurely by some 9 am and got ready by 10.30 am. We are yet to figure out what to do in Karaikudi. After a quick brain-storming with Vasu we finalized our itinerary for the day – Kanadukathan 16 Km (Chettinad Palace, a Chettinad mansion, etc), Pillayarpatti Lord Ganesh rock-cut temple, Athangudi 12 Km (tile factory), Kundrakudi Murugan Kovil (hill temple) and RMR, an old textile house famous for Karaikudi cotton sarees, apart from exploring some authentic Chettinad cuisine. Vasu said he will arrange a car (Rs.1000 for indigo and the cab would be at our disposal for the day); meanwhile we set out to catch some food from the nearby restaurant Arya Bhavan. To our dismay we found that restaurants in Karaikudi will stop serving breakfast by around 10 am. So satisfied ourselves with some buns and puffs from a nearby bakery. By that time cab has come and we proceeded to have a quick look at RMR before we set out for an early lunch (as once we move out for the sightseeing, it will be difficult to get any decent food). RMR though old and small, seems to be pretty much a landmark. They had authentic, quality stuff at reasonable prices; for obvious reasons the ladies could not resist again; total damage of about Rs.6000 for a handful of sarees, mostly intend for presenting to others.

Then Friends Hotel happened. Though unassuming, it stick true to the colours of Chettinad. It has an open kitchen, good clean ambience and the food was of course awesome. We tried mutton & chicken biriyani, meals, chicken chettinad dry. All were good, though I would rate the mutton biriyani above others. But the highlight was fish gola, which is a must try (we happened to find it, after the lunch, smiling at us in their open kitchen).

After attaining Nirvana at Friends, by around 1.45 pm we are all set for exploring Karaikudi. First stop was Chettinad Palace (no entry) followed by a Chettinad mansion. The palace is majestic and well maintained (atleast from outside). We tipped the old keeper (some Rs.200) of the mansion to gain an entry inside. The mansion was huge, easily some 15-20,000 sq ft. The keeper guided us through all those colourful Chettinad and porcelain tiles, heavily worked teak  doors, windows and furniture, stained glass ventilations, etc. Virtually every inch of the structure is filled with something and everything is conceived big. What stand out after the half an hour tour of the mansion is the heavy dose of colours and size.
Chettinad palace

Heavily loaded Chettinad mansion
Athangudi is scattered with a lot of small scale tile making units (calling them tile “factories” is a little stretch). We just barged in to one such (Sri Ganapathy Tiles). The owner, Ramu, is into tile making and sale of second hand furniture and artifacts from dismantled Chettinad houses. We found 3-4 labourers busy in tile making and it seems they are pretty used to visitors like us. Ingredients for Athangudi tiles is simple – liquid colour (bright), cement powder, one plane glass sheet and mold. It is a tile by tile production, no batch process or continuous production. After the mold is pressed against the glass base, colours are poured in to the gaps. Once the colour is set, cement powder is filled and a little water is sprinlged. The whole thing along with the glass is then submerged in water for a couple of weeks. Once matured, the glass is taken out carefully for re-use. Ramu also shown us his impressive collection of old furnitures and artifacts for sale.

Off to Pillayarpatti. The temple is considered about 1500 yrears old. The rock-cut nature of temple is not really obvious unless looked from the back side. Be prepared to climb some 300 odd steps at Kundrakudi temple, which also must be a 1000 year old. By this time, the excitement of seeing a millennia old structures has become a routine.

Decided to have dinner from Bengala, the most famous address in Karaikudi. It is a mansion-turned heritage hotel. We reached there by 7 pm only to be informed that food will be prepared only on advance order. So we were promptly back to Friends for dinner. Gulped down Rs.1000 worth of dosas, Chettinad chicken curry, kothuporotta (avoidable) and curry porotta.

We have covered Karaikudi more or less. Hence decided to catch the convenient passenger train next day @ 8.30 am to Rameswaram and had a good sleep.

The railway station was about 4 Km. This time we were determined to have breakfast from Arya Bhavan. Yesterday’s cab was called for to drop us at the station, which he did for Rs.200. We had some 5 hrs in hand and the train was to at all crowded. By the time we reached Pamban bridge, I’ve completed Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist. The train must be travelling at less than 20 Km/ Hr on the bridge. One side we saw the remains of the old bridge which was destroyed in the 1964 cyclone. On the other side is the elevated road bridge on which there was a bit of a crowd to see our train crossing the 2.5 Km bridge. The view of the sea was breathtaking with the gentle drizzle and cold winds to add to the feel of the moment.
Remains of the original Pamban bridge
We checked in at hotel Hare Rama Hare Krishna (Ph: 04573-223111; Rs.2500/ room) at around 1.30 pm. The place is really old and not that clean to our satisfaction. Even the bathrooms were a bit stained and the rooms crammed. It is a livable place, but not recommendable. The only advantage being its proximity to the Rameswaram temple. As we were not that confident about their lunch we opted for the restaurant of Senthil Andavar nearby, which was decent enough. By around 4 pm went to the temple, my parents wanted to do bali-darpanam for the ancestors. Since we were in the West gate of the temple, we crossed it across to the East gate (main entrance of the temple), beyond which is the Agni Teertham. It is sea front and there is facility to have a dip in the sea. There was a battalion of priests sitting to do the bali pooja @ of Rs.500 per head. It is an instant affair which will get over in about 30 min, post which we have to enter the temple to purify ourselves with the waters of 22 sacred wells inside the temple. A footwear room is available just outside the entrance (free). There are a lot of external assistants available for a fee to guide us for the sacred bath, but the entire mechanism is well oiled so no assistance is required. There is a designated queue at the entrance for the bath and the fee is Rs.25 per head. Once we enter the queue, just go along; it covers all the 22 wells in numerical order and there are temple staff at all wells who will fetch water and will pour on you. We are allowed to carry fresh cloths and there is a change room inside the temple. The whole process took about 1 hour. We had a relaxed spent inside the temple for some time.
The evening was generally relaxed, so we went for a walk across the town. Rameshwaram island is one of the oldest towns in TN with over 2000 years of recorded history. It still is a pretty small town centered around the temple, with severe drinking water and other infrastructure impediments.

It was raining and the night was surprisingly cold for a sea side place. Woke up next day early to go to Danushkodi. The old Willys  jeep came exactly at 8.30 am (Rs.1300 to and fro) and we are off for the lands-end, some 25 Kms away. The road is up to some 15 kms after which it is only sand with one side Indian Ocean (Laccadive Sea) and the other side a calmer Bay of Bengal. Though there were heavy rains enroute, by the time we started the sandy routes, it was down to drizzling. The jeep had extra gears (4x4) to push through the sand and the driver was careful to travel on the tyre marks left by other jeeps. It is important to carry sufficient drinking water as you will find only other tourists in these places. The drive to Danushkodi and the place itself was a remarkable experience. The whole area comes under Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park. The land is reasonably un-spoilt with substantial marine bird population. It is definitely a bird-watcher’s paradise. It is not just beaches alone, there is some marshy land and stretches of shrubs which makes it ideal environment for birds to prey. Shortly we reached the land’s end, where the mighty Indian Ocean meets the Bay of Bengal. Far away we could see small islands packed with birds. The very thought that after many such islands and not far away is another nation, Srilanka, was enthralling. Somewhere I’ve read that a few thousand years’ back the Rameswaram island was connected to the Mannar islands in Srilanka and the whole thing was a long tombolo. The rain gods were in favour; we thoroughly enjoyed the 45 min stay there, hopping between Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal!
Between the seas…

Marine migratory birds…
The ghost town of Dhanushkodi presents some picturesque sites. Every were one could see frozen life – an abandoned old church, remains of railway station, skeleton of roads, broken schools and odd Victorian street lights. But I could only imagine what would those unfortunate souls of the now dead town might have gone through on that fateful day in 1964. On the way back to Rameswaram town, we touched upon Kothandaramar temple, in the middle of the sea connected by a causeway somewhat similar to the Haji Ali in Mumbai (but, drivable).

It is not wise to experiment on food in Rameswaram (It is an old temple town completely interlaced with the Ramayana; do not any anticipate luxury. Everything available including food will be basic and no assurity of quality. We found a lot of houseflies around). So we sticked to Senthil Andavar for lunch.
We have to shelve our plans to visit Kurusadi  island (a marine biosphere with lots of marine life like coral, dolphins, etc) as it is pretty far from Rameswaram (some 25 Km including 5 Km of boat ride from Mandapam. We were told that it requires prior permission from the fisheries department, boats will not be readily available and the tourist infrastructure (like snorkeling) is absent. Moreover, the weather was not conducive and time was not in favour. 

Our train to Madurai was at 5.30 pm and we have to check out of the hotel by 1.30 pm. So we had a deal with one of those large autorikshaws plying to take us around the town while having all our luggage loaded and finally to drop us in railway station (Rs.300). We have given ourselves about 2 hours within which we covered Gandhamathan Parvatham (highest point in the island & Ramarpatham temple), Jadayu theertham, Sugreeva theertham, five faced Hanuman temple, Bhadrakaili Amman temple, TV tower (supposed to be the highest in India), etc. The five-faced Hanuman temple has an interesting display of “floating stones”; the story goes that Rama and his monkey warriors built Ramasethu using these stones. I was guessing these stones would be pumice, but it looked more like dead corals.

By 4.30 pm we were at the railway station. The flies almost covered us, hence despite a bit of hunger and temptation to have some masala vadas displayed for sale, we contained it and waited patiently waiting for the doors of the train to be opened. The train left the station on dot, and unfortunately I dozed off soon just to miss the pamban bridge.

At 9 pm Madurai is buzzing with action. We reached Hotel Vijaya (0452-2336321) near the Periyar bus stand in an auto (Rs.40). Had a quick dinner of kothuporotta and egg-dosa from a very shady restaurant just opposite the hotel. Next day around 9.30 am we walk to the Madurai temple (some 1 Km). Since we had enough time, we decided to stand in the free queue (other options are Rs.20 and Rs.100 per head queues). But soon we realized that we are not heading anywhere, we took the Rs.20 pass and switched the queue. After about an hour, we are inside the Minakshi’s abode. There is an elevated pathway in side the shrine so that everyone gets a view of the idol without much push-pull. The same process repeated for the Shiva’s shrine as well. By the time we are through with sharing all our woes to the gods, it was 12.25 pm. The entry to the thousand pillar hall (inside the complex itself, just outside the Shiva shrine) closes by 12.30 pm, hence we ran to the counter. Once in, we got some half an hour to spend. The hall has a magnificent Nataraja delightfully lit apart from various artifacts from the Chola and Pandya periods. By 1.30 pm we were out.

Murugan Idly Shop (Opp Pothys, near the temple. Pothys can definitely give competition to the Minakshi temple itself in terms of the crowd) and Janakiraman (Tamil Selvam Road) are two landmarks no traveler to Madurai should miss. Had an elaborate lunch at MIS with multiple round of butter dosa, plain dosa, idly…  toped up with a heavy duty jigartanda (a mix of cream milk shake, nuts and many other items) [Tip: At MIS, be prepared for a waiting time of 30 minutes minimum… and when you finally get the chance, accept the fact that someone will be standing near you looking at your leaf plate, impatiently waiting for you to finish. To enjoy meal at MIS one need to develop that skill to be oblivious to ones surrounding; not a difficult task to develop since it comes naturally once you have the first bite…]. We had lots of time since the return bus to Bangalore was at 9 pm from the near by Periyar bus stand (KPN). So after the heavy meal had a siesta till evening. The only target in mind for the evening was Janakiraman, which again was pretty close. We just asked the friendly waiter what they serve the best. Without even a blink, he suggested to try mutton biriyani and mutton fry which we promptly obliged to. I’m an uncorrupted non-vegetarian, but not so biased towards mutton. But then at Janakiraman, mutton attains divine standards. After pushing down 2 biriyanis, I could not wait for the a/c sleeper bus to Bangalore arrive.

Next day at 6.30 am we were back to the mundane