The Indian East Coast was something that was pending on my “been there” check-list. Somehow it had always evaded me. However this time my engineering classmate figured out a time slot and an itinerary in the early Feb. The plan was a road trip from Bangalore, in his humble Wagon-R.
First stop was Auroville, the calm green roads of the place were indicative of what was to come next in the Auroville Visitor’s centre. This place was more of a modern temple, with twisting walkways passing through trees surrounded by boards / placards depicting the history of Auroville. This was an extreme foreign visitor magnet along with tourists. Most enjoying the cafes, patisseries and ice-cream bars more than the history and the soul of Auroville.
What amazed me more in Auroville and adjoining places, is the abundance of bakeries, cafes and gelato ice-cream bars. Its not that they are one of ” just another bakery”, No, ie I had breakfast at the famous Auroville Bakery, it was awesome, the price was well with reach of locals, rather the Indian food was cheap and other croissants, rolls were well within the bounds of reality.
Pondicherry / Puducherry
Pondi, the affectionate call for Pondicherry or Puducherry has one major attraction – The White town. The southern part of Pondi has a canal running North – South. The west side of the canal (away from the beach) belonged to the native Indians during the French colonial rule while the East part belonged to the French (the “white”). This was the prime area overlooking the beach lashed by turquoise waters of Bay of Bengal. The white town, had a very distinct feel to it. The first thing that hits you is cleanliness and the roads. Very clean, well paved and clearly marked roads. A lot of trees along the roads, trimmed and flowering Bougainvillea. Next noticeable feature of this part, are its bungalows / houses. All of them clean and white-washed with distinct blue or dark-gray bordering. The houses had either a white or a typical yellow colour, more like chrome-yellow. The bungalows on the junctions had a clear blue colored board with white lettering, “Rue Dupuy”, “Rue Romain Rolland” and so on. For a non-french learned like me, what is Rue? My friend mentioned that its “street” in French.
We had our lunch at the “Le Cafe”. Keeping same expectations of Auroville Bakery, we were truly disappointed. The food was average, it was cold and it was pricey. However it seemed the French had a special love for this one and came in by flocks. Complacency?
While we roamed around and along the promenade by the beach, we saw loads of visitors in awe of the place, snapping at any flatly yellow colored building. I wasn’t sure if its just the cleanliness of the area that fascinated people. Across the channel, the Tamil town, was just another busy day with hustle and bustle of vehicles and people alike.
Chidambaram, Pichavaram Mangroves
On our way to Chidambaram, went to Cuddalore’s Silver beach. It was close to noon, and it was HOT. The beach didn’t really catch our imagination as we already had a few days of beaches, plus it wasn’t the cleanest of the lot either. We found a route close to the beach alongside Nagarjuna refinery. This route I thought would be a bad choice as it could have bad roads, unnecessary slowing down of things, but it turned out to be the best of the routes that we had taken in the entire trip. As we moved eastwards towards the sea, the landscape changed, with evergreen fields of paddy bounded by tall coconut trees. The weather too had turned cloudy removing the harshness of the sun.
We stopped at a small beach side temple. The beach had the cliched look, which we are used to in photos but in reality hard to find. Straight long beach with white sand, sloping and bending coconut trees with blue-green turquoise water creating a mist and the best of the lot – CLEAN! The beach had a strange pier like structure made out of coconut tree trunks. It would’ve been a big injustice if I didn’t mention it, the Periyakuppam Beach. On getting back on the highway we also found posters of local leaders with ex LTTE chief, Prabhakaran. Sid mentioned the closer you go towards Rameshwaram, stronger will be its following.
In Chidambaram, we had stayed for the night so that we could get into the Nataraja temple by morning as well. We also managed to find the best hotel in the entire trip, Hotel Sri Krishna Vilas Veg. Restaurant. It had the best of idlis, appams, dosas with most human and warm servers.
Sid had found that close to Chidambaram, Pichavaram – there is a mangrove forest which also has boat rides through them, where you can observe the flora and fauna up close. We booked a human powered boat ride through the mangrove forests are the second largest in the world after Sundarbans. The entire area around mangroves isn’t deeper than 4-5 feet. As we entered inside the mangroves, rowing was not possible as the depth had reduced to a feet. The boatman had to plough us through the oars by pushing them in the mud below. The guys there had even created an artifical path through the mangroves by cutting them so that the boat could snake through the depths of the forest. At times the covering was so thick around and over us that the camera had to struggle in low light conditions even in peak noon.
Tharangambadi, formerly Tranquebar
From one french town to another European town. This time it was Danish. I had no idea that India also had a Danish setup somewhere in East India. Tranquebar is an exceptionally small town just popular for the old Danish Establishment which covers only a few streets, a Danish fort, which isn’t really a fort as we generally understand, a couple of churches and big bungalow by the beach, which is aptly called “The bungalow on the beach”. The town is so small that we had to struggle finding a decent restaurant for dinner and had to travel all the way back to another temple village/town to Thirukadaiyur almost 9kms.
Early morning we rose for the customary Sunrise view on the beach along with the Danish fort. The fort is just big 4 walls, the front overlooking the see has rooms which now host a small museum that depicts the history of Danes in India and Tranquebar. Below there is a neat garden and on the top a walkway that encircles the entire fort. And that’s the Danish fort for you. The church is a small one, around 10 when we visited it it was deserted. We headed to the Queens Library / museum next to it, which again is run by old Danes who want to preserve their history. The talks with them, gave the drift, that the young ones back on the Scandinavian island don’t care much.
If you observe India’s east coast closely, you’ll notice that there is a big right-angled triangle shaped land mass which looks like a nose. This landmass also drains Kaveri’s tributaries. This point probably is the second closest to Sri lanka after Rameshwaram. Tourist attractions for this one are, the beach with a 270 degree view, a wildlife & bird sanctuary and a towering lighthouse. First up we enjoyed the views from the lighthouse with the famous right angled turn and the views of the sanctuary. At the sanctuary we were allowed with our car to carry on a slightly elevated rocky path that bisected right through the sanctuary which is scant of typical trees but more of meadows. On our way we enjoyed the sights of Blackbucks aplenty, a few monkeys and a hare racing across the road and the grasslands. The road ends at the edge which houses an old light house (not open for visitors) and tower view point. In the opposite distance we saw the light tower in the haze of the evening. In the entire East coast journey this small 7km path was probably the most relaxing, with no hustle bustle of loud vehicles and cacophony of the towns. Without people, just land and its flora-fauna, it was a unanticipated jewel in the trip. I would’ve loved if the tourism department could’ve given tidbits about the place with some interesting scientific facts, etc.
A trip to East Indian coast isn’t complete without Rameshwaram. A picture that strikes when thinking about it is the Pambam Bridge over the aquamarine waters and more recently the Missile Man of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
On our way to Rameshwaram from Pattukkottai the highway was close to the shoreline and we expected a nice, picturesque and pleasant drive. But in reality it turned out to be a hot, arid one. The road coming south resembled more of a path cutting through Rajasthan than Tamilnadu, where I was expecting dense green cover with plantations of Banana. But here, passing through Thondi it only had sandy / dry land (not even paddy fields like we found near Nagarjuna refinery) which was setup for salt-pans. The asphalt line through which we passed was bordered by thorny Acacia bushes. This kind of sight was very common in Gujarat and Rajasthan, just that the flat land was there, not doing anything, over here it was baking salt. Somehow the coastal coconut trees too weren’t in abundance, just random Palm trees.
But as we took a left on the Ramanathapuram bypass, the scenery changed to a welcoming greens of paddy, pulses and tall coconut trees. As I checked on the maps, the landmass around the super smooth highway narrowed with the blue eating away into the cream-grays. I was expecting to see water on both sides of the car and soon it started appearing. We had to actually slow down the car from 70kmph+ so that we could enjoy the sights more. Soon the road started climbing as it neared a fishing town of Mandapam to get on par with the bridge that connects the Indian mainland to the Pambam island. As it climbed we were drenched by the blue-green bay on both sides, the bridge too was cleverly colored gray-turquoise and it kinda mixed with the surrounding. The bridge overlooked the famous Pambam railway bridge. Even though it wasn’t allowed to stop on the bridge, the tourists couldn’t resist the temptation of having a glimpse of the area and selfies.
We halted at the APJ Abdul Kalam Memorial, which had lots of paintings from his moments in life, like the icon one where he is carrying the conical head of a rocket on the back of the bicycle. It also had wax statues of the Dr along with other eventful conferences and gatherings with other world leaders.
Dhanushkodi is the crescendo you hit on the East Coast Trip. We decided to have a go at it around 3.30pm. The national highway to Rameshwaram now stretches all the way east to Dhanushkodi. As we approached closer, the land around the road thinned and the water started engulfing the land. It feels like a scene from a movie, surreal, unsure if its really the truth or a dream. Dhanushkodi, at its end has a pillar with Ashoka sculpture where the road ends. This place is halfway between Indian mainland and the tear-drop shaped island. White sand all-around with the blue-green Palk Strait. On our way back, we parked our car and headed through the murky sand to the white sands on the right side, just to enjoy even more pristine untouched area. However a few liquor bottles already had made their mark.
The next day, we ventured to see the Kalam House, which is a museum showcasing his awards including the Bharat Ratna, the highest award a civilian can bestowed upon. It had photos and artifacts from his life as an engineer, scientist, politician and more importantly as a person. Filled with quotes and pictures of the young school children that he always liked to be present with.
On our last leg of the trip, the Chettinad area was on maps. Known for its wealthy merchants, the area literally houses huge palatial houses and home to the famous Chettinad cuisine. The term Chettinad literally means the land of shetti / chetti or wealthy merchants. First up we went through a museum of the well known Algappa Chettiar in Karaikudi. An industrialist who setup a whole town centered around a university that he created. Then we headed north to a smaller town, Kanadukathan. This one is actually famous for its majestic houses with a very typical architecture. The houses lavishly made using Teak from Burma, Italian Marbles, Chandeliers and mirrors from Belgium. We stayed overnite in the town of Pudukkottai before heading back to Bangalore.