Ours is an ancient land. A lot of our ancient heritage is embedded in the old temples, whose architecture and sculptures remind of the life in the eras gone by. Therefore, to keep in touch with the past, we need to visit these ancient places, which lie scattered in abundance wherever you choose to go in our country, disclosing their history, heritage and a lot more information to the discerning visitor.
We live in a modern age. The pressures and challenges of the continuous fast pace of work, the long time hours spent in commuting to work every single day, and the necessity to devote the remaining rest day of the week to attend to personal chores and maintenance work at home, all contribute to a recurrent crave for a break from routine. Life in this fast world is exactly like the long-sighted vision of a person driving fast – you tend to concentrate on what is there at a certain distance ahead of you, and miss what passes closer to you, ending up bumping hard on speed-breakers!
A good way of addressing both the above issues is to plan a holiday that combines both pleasure and pilgrimage, and that is what we did just now. In our quest to take a complete break from routine, we always tend to think of far off and popular, exotic places than looking for places of interest that are nearby, which sometimes also end up much more interesting than what you were looking for! Pichavaram is one such place for those living in Tamil Nadu. Wondering where to go in the holidays around Pongal time, we hit upon the idea of visiting Pichavaram. A quick surf along the shores of internet validated our choice, prompting us to proceed with planning for the trip.
Pichavaram, a scenic place along the coast of Bay of Bengal between the estuaries of Vellar and Coleroon, is a complex of Killai backwaters and a large stretch of perennial, tropical mangrove forests that are rooted in just a few feet of water. So large, in fact, that they are the second largest mangrove forest in the world, covering an area of 2,800 acres. The largest is also in India, the impenetrable Sunderbans in the state of West Bengal, home to the majestic Bengal Tiger as well.
Looking at the places nearby, we decided to make it to Chidambaram and Srimusnam temples along with Pichavaram. Chidambaram is about four hours drive from Chennai. Saturday happened to be a working day for my wife Vasanthi. So we started in the afternoon, picking her from her office and driving straight to Chidambaram, via Vandalur, Thiruporur, Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. We had snacks (sweet and sour kuzhi paniyaram, which were really good) and coffee at one Anandha Bhavan a little away from Pondicherry outskirts on the way to Cuddalore. The road is perfect on this route.
We had a good darshan at the Chidambaram temple. That Saturday being Vaikunda Ekadasi, we were very happy to be there, getting to have darshan of both the Perumal (Shri Govindaraja Perumal) and Shiva (Shri Thillai Natarjar) at the same place and time, around the Maha Arathi time in the evening. The temple complex in Chidambaram is really huge. Contrary to reports, there was no disturbance from any of the priests. We had a normal darshan, waiting in line along with hundreds of other devotees and the experience was very satisfying. Unfortunately, since it was late in the evening, and also since photography was prohibited inside the temple, the option of taking the camera to make any decent photograph was ruled out.
We had booked accommodation at the Saradharam Eco-Resort within the Pichavaram boat house complex. It was almost 10 p.m. when we reached the place, only to find the gate locked. Wondering whether we had missed direction, I called the manager and he confirmed that the Resort was inside the complex, and sent the watchman to open the gate. The rooms are situated in a three-storey building, and we opted for a ground floor room. At first glance, while the room was okay, we found the bathroom a little smelly, and reported our concern. They couldn’t do much other than spraying room freshener, which at least temporarily gave us some relief, as we were, already dead tired, dying to get to sleep.
No matter how late I get to sleep, I AM an early bird and get up at the first sound of the chirp of nearby birds. I was awakened next morning by the measurably loud calls of mynas and kingfishers, and finding Vasanthi and Bharath unwakeable, I set out to an early morning stroll through the lawn, to test my new camera in low light. The ‘margazhi’ weather was very pleasant. The entire area was absolutely silent except for the calls of the birds. Strolling through the lawn, I found the signs of the sun rising above the clouds in the horizon, and quickly got up to the terrace of the lodge. Though there was a huge high-tension power tower obstructing a clear view of the sky, the sunrise through the clouds was breathtaking, with the crepuscular rays shifting position every second because of the moving clouds. Clicking to my heart’s content, I waited for the birds to come up in the open, but only a myna answered my request. The moment the sun finally got out of the obstructing clouds, it began heating the earth in earnest and I could feel the morning chillness quickly giving way to the warmth of the sun’s rays. But the light was also needed for decent photography, and I lost no time in capturing the few flowers and grass shining in the early morning direct sun falling on them.
By now, it was almost 8 a.m. and time to wake up my family if we were to get to boating on time. Breakfast is brought from Chidambaram and served, so we had to wait the arrival of the first bus for breakfast! Idli, Pongal and Poori were available and we ordered one of each to test. All were very good and tasty. The ticket counter opens at 8.30, and there was no rush at all in the morning. In fact, it was a good decision to book the lodge here, as we had ample time to freshen up after a good sleep.
There are two options for boating – motorboat and rowboat. Motorboat is fast, takes more people, and goes to the beach quickly, but cannot navigate through the narrow clearings in the thick mangroves. Rowboats go through every nook and corner, but are very slow and time consuming. Going by the experiences narrated in blogs and articles, we chose to go the row-boat way and engaged a boat for a 4-hour trip to the beach. The cost for this trip, which can take up to 5 persons, is Rs.1,000. However, the boatman said only the two-hour trips would take you through the mangroves, and the beach trip would only go through the wider waterways. As we wanted to go through the narrow paths too, we bargained with him for a de-tour through the thickets at an extra cost, and were happy we did so. For, the boat rides through the thick roots and narrow waterways is really a one-time experience.
The mangrove forest consists of trees of two or three particular varieties, with thick foliage and a widespread root structure. From a distance, the trees look as if pruned at the bottom at a certain height, but actually it is the effect of the ebb and flow of the tides limiting the growth of leaves at that height. They say hundreds of varieties of birds live here, but we could see only little egrets, great egrets, herons and kingfishers. We could, of course, hear many more, but they were completely out of sight. We also saw a lot parrots making merry in the forest growth.
The ride was both scenic and enjoyable with the cool breeze blowing on your face because of the slow movement of the boat. Occasionally we came across other tourists crossing the path. Besides tourists, we also saw fishermen on boats engaged in fishing.
To break the silence during the lonely and long paddling, we engaged in conversation with the boatman, enquiring about his life, how he came into this profession and such things. We learnt that he had dropped out of school very early, though he knows to read and write a little. Because his father was a fisherman, he also learned the nuances and got himself enrolled with the government to operate (paddle) boats here. He has three siblings, a brother and two sisters, one of whom is married. He is aware of the famous film “Idayakkani” starring MGR and Radha Saluja that was shot here, only through his father. His father had not even got married then! The tsunami of 2004 did not affect the mangroves, but the Thane cyclone did much damage, but the eco-system survived it. Amid small talk like this, it took almost two hours for us to finally see the beach.
The boatman stopped rowing and asked us to get down. It looked slushy with lots of snail-like beings moving on the mud-floor, but he said that is what the floor is like at that place and asked us just to walk on those creatures, saying that they would not be crushed by our weight, but would just get pressed against the soft mud. We got down and walked our way to the beach.
I have never seen such an empty beach anywhere, except in films. It was just us and the boatman. The undisturbed sand had formed beautiful patterns caused by wind. The white sand was soft and shining. The black sand was flaked, and crushed a little when we walked over it, giving us a strange feeling. The shore was about two hundred meters or a little more away, and we slowly made to it taking as much cool and fresh air in as we could. We saw mild waves lashing the shore. There were crabs on the half-wet sand, coming out and wandering a little, only to hurry back into their hole when they sensed any movement. The entire shoreline was desolate as far as we could see, and there were just the four of us. We collected shells, the likes of which we had only seen in younger days and never get to see now in other beaches. The shell of a dead turtle was there on the shore. We also saw several fiddler crabs, singled-clawed red crabs, strangely moving their claw as if waving the hand. It was fun to watch. After staying some time on the beach, we walked back to the boat, and again passed through the fine sand and took photographs of the beautiful wave pattern the wind had created on it. We made our way back to the boarding point, this time the fisherman taking the usual route and ending up much earlier than he took to reach the beach. Nearer the boat house, we saw the next generation, the young kids of fishermen that is, playing around on a row-boat, chatting and rowing the boat with just one paddle and a few casuarina poles.
The four hours we spent on the boat in the wild growth of mangroves and on the desolate beach was a very unique and out-of-the-world experience for us. Back at the resort, we headed to the room for a brief rest before lunch, and had a brief nap after lunch also before checking out around 3.30 p.m.
From Pichavaram, we drove to Srimushnam, about 45 km away, to the temple of Sri Bhuvaragaswami, the third avatar of Sri Vishnu. The idol, about two feet high, is said to be swayambumoorthy and made of salagram as well. After praying the Lord and Thayar for the well being of all, we left for Chennai. The GPS directed us on the Neyveli-Panruti route, on which route the road was horrible for a very long stretch. We had evening snacks at Archana garden restaurant near Neyveli. Once we touched NH45 before Thindivanam, the road was good and we reached home around 11 p.m.
Based on our experience, I give below a few points to note for the benefit of readers of this blog.
· If you are travelling from Chennai, take the ECR route through Pondy. The road is even and much better all through the stretch.
· Staying at the resort in Pichavaram is strongly recommended, as it gives you a very relaxed morning before the boat ride. The rooms are decent, and the attendants are polite and courteous. The food is also good.
· It is preferable to visit during the winter months if you plan for the boat ride in the morning. In other times, they say the afternoon ride is cooler and more pleasant.
· Going through the narrow pathways is possible only on the row-boat, which is a pleasant experience also. Therefore, unless you are really pressed for time, opt for the row-boat.
Hope you liked this blog. Please feel free to post your comments, which will help me in making future travelogues more interesting by adding/omitting narration appropriately according to your suggestions. More pictures of the trip can be found at www.flickr.com/photos/raghu_ambattur/sets.