On a typically blazing Chennai day, we started our somewhat less than- typical drive down the East Coast Road (ECR). Our itinerary was ambitious: it skirted the length of the Coromandel Coast, taking us past the seaside temples of Mammallapuram and the quiet lanes of Puducherry, making a detour to the magnificent Thanjavur temples and the mansions of Chettinad, before hitting the coast again to the deserted yet gorgeous Dhanushkodi.
Our two-week drive turned out to be everything it was supposed to be: the bright blue of the sea kept us company, as did the architecture of temples, some of which were World Heritage Sites. Gargantuan posters of film stars and politicians saw us off at every turn. But as it’s wont to be, there was a hitch, which came in the form of language. Both of us don’t speak Tamil, and this made it hard for us to ask for directions, a difficulty we hadn’t encountered to this extent elsewhere. Yet we would recommend this drive to non- Tamil speakers, for reasons that are pretty much universal: one doesn’t need words to experience a new region or to celebrate astonishing sights.
We started on the drive from Egmore Railway Station, and couldn’t help but second the argument of Chennai’s residents that one can make a speedy getaway from the city. In no time, we were sailing down the remarkably smooth ECR, also rather modestly known as SH49, checking out the amusement parks along the way and the deserted stretches of the Coromandel Coast beyond. The ECR is noted not only for its high-grade construction but also for the excellent views it affords: the Bay of Bengal to the left and green paddy fields and villages to the right.
The sun was high up when we stepped on the gas once again, after visiting Mammallapuram’s famous Shore Temple and granite sculptures, and headed on to Puducherry, where we stayed in a French mansion. From Pondy, as it’s fondly called, we drove to Chidambaram. Acres of dark green paddy fields replaced the symmetry of French quarters, large posters began appearing at village crossroads, and teetering private video coaches ferrying pilgrims refused to give way. It was at this time that we caught sight of a procession.
A few boys were helping to shift two garlanded idols to their respective vahanas or vehicles outside a roadside temple. As our cameras came out, the excited boys fished out their sunglasses and struck a dramatic pose next to the dazzling deities. We knew instantly that cheeky style and divinity existed seamlessly here.
Tamil Nadu has a strong network of roads that connect each main town to cities and nearby villages. A few years ago, some of the overused state highways were converted to national highways, lending the roads a better finish but retaining their not-so-impressive widths. The road to Nagapattinam from Chidambaram was undoubtedly one of the refurbished ones, partly occupied by banana and jackfruit vendors. But somewhere along the way, everything became organised, a beautiful promenade appeared, as did names such as ‘Duplex Street’.
At Karaikkal, the clouds announced good weather for the day, and then Nagapattinam arrived, looking better than anticipated. But the map said that we could go further, beyond the national highway. What followed was an unforgettable day of discoveries, with a stop at the Vailankanni Church and a ride to Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, where there were innumerable blackbucks and no tourists. We left the coast behind the next day to head 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 much looked forward to: Chettinad.
We visited the villages nearby, exploring the famous Chettiar mansions, and ended the stay with a Chettinad chicken treat at a restaurant. Now it was time for us to literally fall off the map. At Pudukottai, the wide, open lanes of NH210 invited us to go ahead with our plan: we were driving to the last piece of land that India calls its own in the south. We marvelled at some more remnants of Chettiar architecture around Devakottai and bounced off bad stretches in between, zipping past milestones that heralded the arrival of Ramanathapuram town. Half an hour later, we hit a crossroad. After several deliberations and consultations with the manager of the local restaurant, the tyre repair guy and the omnipresent friendly bystander, we decided to hit left to explore a road that everyone seemed to ignore. The road extended to Tondi village and beyond and offered us the smoothest drive we experienced in this entire road trip.
The Bay of Bengal played hide and seek to our left as we skirted the polished shoulders of SH33, moving rapidly past fisherfolk’s hamlets to meet NH210 at the dusty town of Devipattinam and hurtled down NH49 to the popular pilgrimage spot of Rameswaram. Sumos and Innovas from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and other states were heading in the same direction, stopping on the magnificent Indira Pamban Bridge from where India disappeared into the vast confluence of seas. The sun hit lower and a whistle brought all travellers scrambling to the bridge wall. The 5.30 pm train from Rameswaram slowly chugged down the railway bridge below, encircled by the vast blue ocean, into the Indian mainland, eliciting loud cheers from smiling faces above. The moment passed and we drove down to Rameswaram, from where the next day we rode over rough roads lined with casuarinas to witness the impressive desolation of Dhanushkodi.
A few days later, we set off for Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s second largest city and home to the impressive Meenakshi Temple. Pilgrims’ vehicles accompanied us down NH49, past billowing chimneys of brick factories and date trees, to one of India’s oldest cities whose honorary citizens are supposed to include Lord Shiva’s family! With such illustrious residents, it was hard not to be spellbound by the city’s magical sunrise, when the baronial Meenakshi Temple’s four gopurams gradually revealed themselves to be painted by the colours of the cosmos.
We still had to keep our date with Tiruchirapalli and off we went on NH45B, passing the towns of Melur and Viralimalai. The sleek highway here extended wide, skirting vibrant greenery flourishing on red earth, with the distant hills and nearby boulders standing like titans guarding a procession of pilgrims. After 12 days of driving around Tamil Nadu’s temple towns (that also double as the state’s major tourist attractions) we felt as if we had at least partially cleansed our souls. But the cycle remained incomplete without seeing the ‘Town of the Celestial Pot’ or Kumbakonam.
We took NH67 to Thanjavur from Tiruchirapalli for Kumbakonam, driving past small, colourful shrines dedicated to the deity Aiyanar, shy flower sellers with ropes of jasmine tucked in their hair, paddy fields where workers stood in ankle-deep water, men trying to catch fish in all and any water source, as well as the occasional stretches of nervewracking roads such as the one near Thiruverambur, where four-laning work was in progress. We tucked into one of our last banana leaf meals in a Thanjavur hotel and went up NH45C, a narrow but smooth road, to reach Kumbakonam’s famed Adi Kumbeswarar Temple. This town was literally overflowing with the faith of a million people, with weddings being auspiciously performed, babies acquiring their names, and pilgrims walking around the sanctum with folded hands and closed eyes.
Two days passed exploring Kumbakonam and the nearby heritage sites of Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram, along with Lord Murugan’s pleasant hilltop shrine of Swamimalai. Soon, it was time to bring our road trip across Tamil Nadu to a close. As we took the road to Chennai, from where we had begun our journey, we knew we had come full circle.
ON THE ROAD
Though ECR is an excellent highway, be careful on this road as people tend to drive rashly once out of Chennai. There are streetlights on ECR up to Puducherry, from where it turns into a national highway (NH45A) terminating at Nagapattinam. It’s safe to drive on this road at night at least till Puducherry. There are plenty of restaurants and hotels on this route, as well as emergency medical facilities. NH45A from Puducherry to Chidambaram and Nagapattinam is a two-lane highway with a few potholes, and is overrun by trucks. From Nagapattinam, you get on to the wide NH67 for Thanjavur, from where NH226 takes you to Pudukottai. From Pudukottai, take NH210 to Ramanathapuram via Karaikkudi and Devakottai. Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi are reached by NH49 from Ramanathapuram. An interesting alternative route to Ramanathapuram is from Tondi village, on the new SH33 that meets NH210 at Devipattinam. This is an excellent road with minimum traffic and great beachside views. To get onto SH33, head 22 km down NH210 from Devakottai and turn left towards Thiruvudanai town at the crossroads. There are no eateries or shops on this route, so carry water and snacks. The road from Rameswaram to Madurai (NH49) is a popular one, and you can expect loads of buses and trucks. Be cautious while driving here as tourist buses tend to speed even at bends and curves.
Tiruchirapalli can be approached from Madurai via NH45B. Reaching Chennai is easy from Kumbakonam via the NH45C that terminates to join the superb four-lane NH45 at Vikravandi. Petrol pumps, tyre repair shops, small eateries and restaurants are found regularly along the way, while ATMs and chemists are located in many small towns. There are very few service stations and only two-wheeler mechanics along the route that we took for Rameswaram, so you may have to ask around for reliable car repair services. Some highway numbers have two versions – state and national – on their milestones, but don’t let this bother you. This is a confusing aspect of Tamil Nadu’s major road network overhaul.
About the author:
Parikshit Rao is a Bangalore native who calls Himachal Pradesh his home. When not travelling the world, he is an avid photographer.