Where in Chennai can meet a couple

Chennai-Dhanushkodi-Chennai: Coromandel calling

On a typically blazing day in Chennai, we started our somewhat less typical drive on the East Coast Road (ECR). Our route was ambitious: it led along the Coromandel coast, past the beach temples of Mammallapuram and the quiet streets of Puducherry, made a detour to the magnificent Thanjavur temples and the mansions of Chettinadbefore we hit the coast of the deserted Dhanushkodi again.

Our two-week drive turned out to be everything it should be: the brilliant blue of the sea held us together, as did the architecture of the temples, some of which were world heritage sites. Gigantic posters from film stars and politicians saw us every step of the way. But as it should be, there was a catch that came in the form of language. Neither of us speak Tamil and that made it difficult for us to ask directions, a difficulty we did not have on this scale elsewhere. Still, we would recommend this campaign to these non-Tamil speakers for reasons that are so general: You don't need words to experience a new region or to celebrate amazing sights.

Chennai Beach (Photo by sjdunphy)

We started driving from Egmore Railway Station and couldn't help repeating the Chennai people's argument that there was a quick escape from the city. In no time we were sailing through the remarkably smooth ECR, also known more modestly as SH49, touring the amusement parks along the way and the uncrowded stretches of the Coromandel Coast. The ECR is not only characterized by its high quality construction, but also by the excellent view it has to offer: the Bay of Bengal on the left and green rice fields and villages on the right.

Cultural medley

The sun was high as we stepped on the gas after visiting Mammallapuram's famous Shore Temple and granite sculptures and drove on to Puducherry, where we stayed in a French mansion. From Pondy, as it is affectionately called, we drove to Chidambaram. Hundreds of dark green rice fields replaced the symmetry of the French Quarter, large posters appeared at the village intersection, and swaying private video carriages carrying pilgrims refused to give in. At that time we saw a procession.

A couple of boys helped relocate two garland idols to their respective vahanas or vehicles outside a roadside temple. When our cameras came out, the excited boys fished their sunglasses and posed in a dramatic pose next to the dazzling deities. We knew right away that sassy style and divinity seamlessly existed here.

Pondicherry (Photo by kkalyan)

Tamil Nadu has a strong road network that connects every city with towns and villages. A few years ago, some of the congested highways were converted to National Highways, giving the roads a better finish but maintaining their not-so-impressive widths. The road to Nagapattinam from Chidambaram was undoubtedly one of the renovated roads partially inhabited by banana and jackfruit sellers. Somewhere along the way everything was organized, a beautiful promenade emerged, as well as names like "Duplex Street".

In Karaikkal, the clouds announced good weather for the day, and then Nagapattinam arrived looking better than expected. But the map said we could go further beyond the national road. What followed was an unforgettable day of discovery, with a stop at Vailankanni church and a drive to Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, which was full of Blackbucks and no tourists. The next day we left the coast to go to Thanjavur, where we gawked at temples. The next day we drove past sunflower and lotus fields, trucks, tractors and children playing barefoot to a destination that we were really looking forward to: Chettinad.

Point Calimere Nature Reserve (Photo from Wikimedia)

We visited the villages nearby, explored the famous Chettiar mansions and ended our stay with a Chettinad chicken treat in a restaurant. Now it was time for us to literally fall off the map. In Pudukottai, the wide, open alleys of the NH210 invited us to continue our plan: We drove to the last piece of land called India in the south. We marveled at some remains of the Chettiar architecture around Devakottai and bounced off bad spots in between, past milestones that heralded the arrival of Ramanathapuram. Half an hour later we hit an intersection. After several deliberations and consultations with the manager of the local restaurant, the tire repair man and the ubiquitous friendly bystander, we decided to go left to explore a street that everyone seemed to ignore. The road stretched all the way to Tondi village and beyond and provided us with the smoothest ride we experienced on this entire road trip.

The Bay of Bengal played hide and seek to our left as we circled the polished shoulders of SH33, drove quickly past fishing villages to the NH210 in the dusty town of Devipattinam, and rushed via NH49 to the popular pilgrimage site of Rameswaram, Sumos and Innovas from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and other states went in the same direction, stopping on the magnificent Indira Pamban Bridge, from which India disappeared into the vast confluence of the seas. The sun beat lower and a pipe brought all travelers to the bridge wall. The 5:30 p.m. train from Rameswaram rolled slowly down the railway bridge, surrounded by the vast blue ocean, into the Indian mainland, making loud faces from smiling faces. The moment passed and we drove down to Rameswaram, from where we drove the next day over rough, casuarina-lined roads to witness the awe-inspiring desolation of Dhanushkodi.

Divine moments

A few days later we made our way to Madurai, Tamil Nadu's second largest city and home to the impressive Meenakshi Temple. Pilgrim vehicles accompanied us along NH49, past billowing chimneys from brick factories and date palms, to one of the oldest cities in India, whose honorary citizens are said to include Lord Shiva's family! With such illustrious residents, it was difficult not to be enchanted by the magical sunrise of the city as the four gopurams of the baronic Meenakshi Temple gradually painted themselves in the colors of the cosmos.

Meenakshi Temple (Photo by Kumar Appaiah)

We still had to make an appointment with Tiruchirapalli and made our way to the NH45B, past the cities of Melur and Viralimalai. The sleek highway stretched wide, circling lush greenery that bloomed on red earth, with the distant hills and nearby boulders that stood like titans guarding a pilgrim procession. After 12 days of driving through the temple cities of Tamil Nadu (which are also the main tourist attractions in the country), we felt as if we had at least partially purified our soul. But the cycle remained incomplete without seeing the "City of the Heavenly Pot" or Kumbakonam.

We took NH67 to Thanjavur from Tiruchirapalli for KumbakonamThey drove past small, colorful shrines dedicated to the deity Aiyanar, shy flower sellers with jasmine stockings in their hair, rice fields with workers standing in ankle-deep water, men trying to catch fish in all water sources like the occasional stretches of nerve-wracking roads like the one near Thiruverambur, where four-lane work was in progress. We hid in a hotel in Thanjavur in one of our last banana leaf meals and walked up the NH45C, a narrow but slippery road to reach Kumbakonam's famous Adi Kumbeswarar Temple. This city was literally overflowing with the beliefs of a million people, weddings were held with promise, babies were given their names, and pilgrims walked around the sanctuary with their hands clasped and eyes closed.

Two days passed exploring Kumbakonam and the nearby sites of Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram, along with Lord Murugan's pleasant mountain sanctuary of Swamimalai. Soon it was time to end our trip through Tamil Nadu. When we took the road to Chennai, where we started our journey, we knew we had come full circle.

Gangaikondacholapuram Temple (Photo by Kannank22)

ON ROAD

Although ECR is an excellent highway, be careful on this road as people tend to rush out of Chennai. There are street lights on ECR as far as Puducherry, from where it ends in a national highway (NH45A) that ends at Nagapattinam. It is safe to take this road at least as far as Puducherry at night. There are numerous restaurants and hotels along this route, as well as emergency medical facilities. NH45A from Puducherry to Chidambaram and Nagapattinam is a two-lane highway with a couple of potholes and is run over by trucks. From Nagapattinam, take the wide NH67 to Thanjavur, from where the NH226 takes you to Pudukottai. From Pudukottai take the NH210 to Ramanathapuram via Karaikkudi and Devakottai. Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi can be reached by NH49 from Ramanathapuram. An interesting alternative route to Ramanathapuram is from Tondi village, on the new SH33 that meets NH210 in Devipattinam. This is an excellent road with little traffic and great views of the beach. To get onto the SH33, take the NH210 14 miles from Devakottai and turn left at the intersection into Thiruvudanai town. There are no restaurants or shops on this route, so carry water and snacks. The Rameswaram to Madurai road (NH49) is very popular and you can expect plenty of buses and trucks. Be careful when driving as tourist buses go fast even around bends and turns.

Tiruchirapalli can be approached from Madurai via NH45B. From Kumbakonam, Chennai can be easily reached via the NH45C, which joins the wonderful four-lane NH45 in Vikravandi. On the way there you will find gas pumps, tire shops, small restaurants and eateries on a regular basis. You can find ATMs and pharmacies in many small towns. There are very few gas stations and only two wheeled mechanics along the route we took for Rameswaram so you may have to ask for reliable auto repair services. Some highway numbers have two versions - state and national - on their milestones, but don't let that bother you. This is a confusing aspect of the major overhaul of Tamil Nadu's road network.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral (Photo by BishkekRocks)

About the author:

Parikshit Rao is a native of Bangalore who calls Himachal Pradesh home. When he's not traveling the world, he's an avid photographer.

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