Earth Sublime

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Tucked away about 40 odd kilometers or so from Dharmapuri is a sleepy little place called Hogenakkal. Over the recent years, it has come to be regarded as an exciting getaway and that is thanks largely to the majestic river Kaveri and the Hogenakkal waterfalls. In fact, the place received wide publicity after Mani Ratnam shot the famous `Chinna Chinna Asai’ song here for his hit film, `Roja’.

The drive from Dharmapuri to Hogenakkal is fairly exciting as one navigates steep curves with the landscape being rocky and barren and the monotony broken by a little bit of greenery now and then.

After reaching Hogekannal, everybody makes a beeline to the river for that’s where the action is. The best way to enjoy the beauty of the river is to take a ride on it In fact as soon as you alight, the locals will pester you to rent out their coracles also known as the `theppa’ or the `parisal’. These are circular in shape, fairly sturdy and perfect to navigate the river. As you encounter the river Kaveri, your first thought is how nice and peaceful it appears. It also makes for a particularly delightful scene with a lot of greenery along its banks with the beautiful hills looming large in the background.

After a considerate amount of haggling, a deal is struck with the `parisal’ oarsman. Along the banks of the river, one can see these coracles lined up. So, the ride begins and there is a great deal of jostling and pushing as our coracle collides with others. Wheeeeeeeeee… our boatman is able to make our `parisal’ go round and round and though it can make one dizzy, it is enjoyable enough. After some time, it is time to disembark as it seems as if the river has run her course. But there are greater delights in store. Our boatman walks along carrying the coracle and soon we descend to some kind of a platform. Again the `parisal’ is put into the river and our boatman helps us get into it.. And soon we discover a new side to this beautiful river. It appears we are in some kind of a deep canyon flanked by rocks, which look craggy and beautiful. Without any exaggeration, it is a sight that will take your breath away. There are delightful little waterfalls created as the river here roars down the rocks, leaving behind a trail of mist and smoke. And that is how Hogenakkal which means `smoking stone’ in Kannada gets its name. Look carefully and you can see a heron or two waiting patiently by the side of the waterfall to catch a fish!

Alongside the waterfalls, masseurs promise a good massage creating a spa-like atmosphere. The water here, it is believed, has some healing properties. One can continue to ride on the river and go on till it peters out into sandy banks where one can rest a while.

1.How to get there: Hogekannal is located on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, about 180 kilometres from Bangalore and 114 kms from Salem. The easiest way to get to Hogenakkal is to first reach Salem and from Salem drive upto Dharmapuri. Then from Dharmapuri, drive along NH7 to go to Hogenakkal..
2. Place to eat: You can eat at any of the many hotels around here. Tamil Nadu tourism runs a place here where you can stay should you decide to hang around for more than a day.
3. Distance from Chennai: Around 345 kms.

Enjoy a quiet holiday at Pulicat

Around 60 kms from Chennai is a small slice of heaven called Pulicat, although the locals call it by another name - Palaverkad. It is one of the many fishing villages that dot the coastline and it boasts of a lagoon, a bird sanctuary and many monuments of historical importance.

There were many colonial powers like the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English that set foot on this place, centuries ago. As we enter the village, the first thing that we notice is the Dutch cemetery and the bizarre tombstones lead us to think that we have stumbled onto the site of the Incas or the Mayas! On both the sides of the cemetery gates, we could see a skeleton carved on it with the figure of the skull glaring at us from the centre.

The topography of Pulicat is remarkable; running parallel to the Bay of Bengal is the 18,440-hectare lagoon with small tracts of land scattered here and there. The only way to get around the place is by boat. So, we hired a boat and with a boatman in tow, we headed out into the waters of the Pulicat lagoon.

The boat went at a languid pace, giving us enough time to soak in the beauty of the surroundings. The greenish waters of the lagoon seemed as if to smile upon us. Some distance away we could see the lighthouse and the casuarina groves. Lending a dash of colour to the place were the blue sails of a boat which sailed away helped by the strong winds. The catamarans, which might appear just as logs of wood, seem perfect for a ride here. In fact, many of the folk here move around in them, carrying along their load of fish. On a thin strip of land, we noticed a few pelicans resting. The entire place was rife with sea gulls, terns and many other birds found on the coasts.

In the midst of the waters of the lagoon, there are small tracts of land (land ahoy!). One can embark here and relax a bit. We noticed that the locals had tried to build a fire; probably roasted their catch and fresh at that. After pottering around a bit, we were back on the lagoon. Many boats passed us by and we received a few friendly waves.

As we went on our tour of the lagoon, we were curious as to the activity that was taking place on a great big mass of land – lots and lots of the fishing folk cleaning their catch and sorting it and perhaps grading it. It turned out that it was the beach! In fact, this piece of land separates the lagoon from the sea. We also noticed something curious – at a particular point the waves of the sea seemed to be meeting the waters of the lagoon. Interlocking his fingers together, our boatman explained that there is some `connection’! Actually, every six hours, the waters from the lagoon merge with the sea and vice versa.

Adjoining the lagoon is another huge tract of land on which rests a dense forest which is off limits to tourists.

A few kilometers away from the lagoon are marshy tracts of land which attract birds in large numbers, a veritable treat for the bird lover. Maintaining a safe distance were flamingoes (pink and black), pelicans, waders, cormorants, herons and spoonbills. Along with a few village folk, we waded into the marsh-like land to view the birds closely. Squelch, squelch went our feet – a good mud therapy for the feet!

So, the next time you want to enjoy a quiet and peaceful holiday, Pulicat is the place to be.

1.How to get there: One can take the local train from the Central Station to a small town called Ponneri. From here, one can take a bus to reach Pulicat. In case you have your own vehicle, you can hit the Nellore highway and take a right at Poonchetty. From here, Pulicat is 20 kms away.
2. Place to eat: There are no hotels here. It is advisable to carry food and water along.
3. Distance from Chennai: Around 60 kms.

Romancing the east coast

Each time our wedding anniversary came up, it gave us a legitimate excuse to pack our bags and go on a holiday. This time we set our sights on the temple town of Chidambaram and the places around it.

We left Chennai by 5 pm and after about ½ an hour of driving through heavy traffic found ourselves on the scenic ECR road. We let the car rip enjoying the sights along the way and decided to take a tea break at Mamallapuram. Hotel Mamalla where we went to seemed a nice, decent place but the food sadly was not up to the mark. As we made our way to Puducherry, it began to grow dark and driving then became quite a task as one tried to get used to the glare of the oncoming vehicles. The roads are also full of curves and navigating them tests one’s driving skills to the maximum. As one reaches Puducherry, one can glimpse a white monument erected here which perhaps signals that one has entered the union territory. Two things make Puducherry seem irresistible – petrol costs 5 rupees less when compared to Chennai and there’s a whopping discount on the liquor. So we ended up tanking the petrol in our car and buying liberal quantities of beer. After a quick dinner at Cuddalore, we were back on the road racing our way to our final destination, Chidambaram. An hour before midnight we reached the place and thankfully found some decent accommodation.

Pichavaram – Unique Mangrove ecosystem

Pichavaram was the magnet that had attracted us to Chidambaram and the next morning we were off to explore this precious ecosystem. The12 km drive from Chidambaram is a peaceful one as one meanders through a water canal that runs along one side of the road and green fields on the other. And finally the sign board proclaimed - Pichavaram. Recognising the potential for tourism, the government has taken steps to provide some facilities like a restaurant and a sort of shelter where people can wait their turn for the boat ride in the Pichavaram backwaters. There is also a watch tower from where one gets a good view of the entire place.

We reached the place by around 9.30 am and at that time there weren’t many tourists milling around. We came across a seller selling what looked like a fruit. Once the outer covering is removed, the inside of the fruit tastes rather juicy, somewhat like how jelly tastes. (Palmyra palm -Borassus flabellifer) And it seemed the very thing for summer going by the brisk business that these sellers made. Boats can be hired from the office here – a one hour ride costs Rs. 100 while a 4 hour ride costs Rs. 600. We decided to opt for the latter as the ride would include a visit to the sea as well. So we set out at around 10.10 am with our boatman who called himself Ezhumalai. Motor boats are not allowed here as it would pollute and spoil the beautiful mangroves. Ezhumalai rowed at a leisurely place and bit by bit we lost sight of the waterfront. The waters are just about 3-4 feet deep and there were tiny ripples on the water’s surface.

As we went deeper and deeper into the waters, we could see clearly the mangroves. On enquiring its name, Ezhumalai rattled off the words “Rhizophora apiculata, Rhizophora muconata and avicennia” – the scientific name of these trees and proceeded to inform us that this type of vegetation could be found in only two places in India – the Sunderbans and in Pichavaram. And finally we were able to get a good look at the mangroves. Half submerged in water, it seemed to rest as if on its branches while the leaves looked green, shiny and rather appealing. On closer inspection we noticed that the tree sprouts a stem which grows and embeds itself into the ground or should we say the waters.

Just the way the branches of the banyan tree grow and pierce the ground to become roots below. No beginning and no end. That’s what even the mangroves looked like.

Ezhumalai told us that he would take us through thick mangrove forests for which we would have to cough up another Rs. 150. The Pichavaram backwaters is spread across an area of 20,000 acres crisscrossed with more than 5000 waterways, both natural and man made. True to his word, Ezhumalai took us through a narrow dense waterway with mangroves on either side where even the sunlight could not penetrate. In fact, we had to be careful of the overhanging branches. It was rather silent here which was broken by the cooing of a dove which remained hidden but for its incessant calls.

The ecosystem here sustains not only flora but also avians. We saw a Brahminy kite as well as a large egret perched on the branches waiting to get at the fish that are to be found in large numbers in the backwaters.

As we came out into the open, we noticed a few boats that were anchored close to the trees. Actually, a few fishermen were fishing out here. The sun bore down heavily upon us and we kept ourselves from getting dehydrated by drinking water and fruit juice. Finally, we reached the edge of the backwaters and alighted from our boat. Now for miles and miles we could see sand and the sea also came into our view. Just imagine, only this sandy stretch separates the sea from the backwaters. Isn’t it another one of nature’s wonders?

Ezhumalai took shelter under some thorny bushes and we went to explore the place. No shrieking, shouting crowds here. Save for one soul, the only other person was sleeping blissfully. Actually, it was interesting to see the shelter he had created. The two ends of a blue sail had been tied to two sticks in such a way that it warded off the sun and provided a cool shelter as well. The sail billowed merrily in the breeze and the person slept on, obviously enjoying a nice snooze. The sand was hot to the touch and there was no question of walking barefoot. We saw some coconut palms in the distance and decided to rest there as there was no other shelter here. It was only here that we encountered a family who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Raghu was quite happy to photograph the many dragonfly swarms found near the coconut and palmyra palms. After some time, we trudged back and saw a few fishermen throwing their nets into the sea.

It was time to bid the place good-bye. Ezhumalai rowed leisurely and to the soft strumming of Eric Clapton’s guitar, we made our way back. As we neared the waterfront, we saw a few children swimming in the backwaters and enjoying themselves thoroughly. Where there was only a small crowd in the morning when we had started out, now large crowds thronged the place and boats full of tourists were setting out into the backwaters.

We decided to climb up the watch tower and the sight from here was wonderful. We saw the backwaters stretching for miles and miles dotted with the mangroves. At one place, there was a nursery where the mangrove saplings had been planted. In fact, students from Annamalai University and M S swaminathan foundation often come here to study this unique ecosystem and much research is done here as it is believed that the mangroves have medicinal properties as well. Actually, the entire place had borne the brunt of the Tsunami that wrecked the east coast in December, 2004. But places where the mangrove vegetation could be found escaped unscathed. In fact, close to the waterfront, there are rows and rows of houses that have provided rehabilitation to the affected.

We lunched here and then drove back. All along the canal, we saw the thorny palm trees, the fruit of which we had enjoyed in the morning. It was time for a good afternoon nap and we did just that.

Chidambaram – Paying homage to the three-eyed one

Of the holy trinity of Hindu gods, one of them has a temple dedicated to him in Chidambaram. He is Lord Shiva or the three-eyed one, the one who is known to cause destruction when angry. That makes Chidambaram a favourite haunt of the Shaivites. What is unique is also the fact that at Chidambaram, Shiva is worshipped in the Nataraja pose, which is very rare.

So we started our day with a visit to this temple. Just like the famed temple in Madurai, the Chidambaram temple also boasts of 4 entrances – north, south, east and west. As we entered through the south entrance, the first thing we laid our eyes upon was the massive gopuram with the figures on it commanding our attention and admiration. Inside the temple, there are vast spaces. We entered the temple and could not help but be amazed at the impressive corridor with stone carved pillars on both sides and offset by huge lamps. We could not pay our respects to the deity immediately as the door had been closed shut by the priests who were probably cleaning and beautifying the image. After some time to the loud chant of the temple gong and with waving lights, we got a glimpse of Lord Shiva and prayed before the beautiful image.

As is the case with most temples in the south, the temple here also has a beautiful pushkarni (pond).

After collecting the Prasad, we left the premises of the temple feeling extremely pious.

Tranquebar – Where time stood still

Again it was my love for history that led me to Tranquebar, a sleepy old town, situated about 55 kms from Chidambaram. In fact, Tranquebar is quite close to Poompuhar and one can cover both these places at once. Starting at around 10.30 in the morning, we reached Tranqebar at about 12.15 pm. It was almost the same road that we had taken to go to Poompuhar the other day. As I drove along, I could not help think that I was in fact serenading the east coast as all the places I went to or crossed were right on the coast be it Pondicherry, Cuddalore, Chidambaram, Poompuhar or Tranquebar.

Soon the sign board announced ‘Tranquebar’ and we had to pass through an arch of sorts which perhaps dates back to the time when the Danes lived here. For it is in Tranquebar that the evangelist Lutheran missionaries first set foot in India. A stone memorial on the beach marks the place of their having arrived here in 1702. Tranquebar has a fascinating link to the past. To encourage trade with other countries, the Rajah of Tanjore gave permission to the representatives who had come from Denmark to build a fort and reside here as well. The fort still stands on the beach with the upper floor being converted into a museum.

We decided to check out the museum and after paying a nominal fee, entered the fort. The fort is not unduly large with the ground floor consisting of many open rooms. Inside the museum, my eyes first fell upon a copy of the treaty that was signed by the Rajah of Tanjore and the king of Denmark. There are many other things of interest right from the swords used by the soldiers to the cannon balls. There is also a portrait of the Raja of Tanjore – Sarfoji.

The beach is vast with many derelict structures (perhaps a temple?). It seems however that the ruins are testimony to many a romance evident by the number of couples seen here. There is also a hotel here called ‘Bungalow on the beach’ which almost resembles a villa. In fact, one would be forgiven if one were to think that one has stumbled upon a place in Spain or France for that matter.

One church here, the Zion church was built in ……… As we went exploring the place, we found that the streets still have names like Kings Street and Queens Street. At one end of Kings’ Street, there is to be found the statue of Ziegenbalg, the missionary who first arrived here. And a plaque there informs the tourists to “be the first” for Ziegenbalg has a number of firsts to his credit – first to …………………..

Soon it was time to say good-bye to this idllyic place, another example of an Indian King’s largess that allowed foreign presence on Indian land.

From Tranquebar, we halted for lunch at Sirkazhi and then reached Chidambaram. After a quick nap, it was time to hit the road again. Again, one has to be rather careful while driving for there is heavy traffic coming from both sides, the Pondicherry-Chennai route being one of the most traveled routes.

We reached home by 10.00 pm. It was by far one of our most enjoyable and informative trips.