Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Madurai-Rameswaram...The Cultural Corridor

The Beginning
The call from Madras, from the same old friend Raman, was so irresistible that soon I found myself standing in the queue to book tickets. The journey is towards Madurai and Rameswaram, through the heart of south-central TamilNadu.
Unlike other trips, lots of thought process was applied to the plan and the blue-print spoke of a hectic, speedy and interesting trip. The places to be covered were miles apart and the transportation medium and timings across the locations needed to be sketched out precisely and accurately. The plan was to reach Madurai on Saturday early morning and proceed to Rameswaram and further down to Dhanushkodi and reach Thirunelveli by Sunday morning. Thiruchendur, a good 70Kms south-east to Thirunelveli was another temple town that was on the plan. Return ticktes were booked on the Tuticorin-Mysore express, which leaves Tuticorin port by 4PM.
The Omen powers were not so good with me, as it was quite evident from the series of incidents that occurred on Friday night, just when i was about to leave. It triggered off with a power failure in the house, which left me with no options other than just to flee from the house, as early as 7:30PM, to catch the 9.30 Bus. Strong winds were indicating some late showers - good luck this time - reached Madiwala, the travel hub, just when the clouds started bursting out. The rain was torrential, and i had to struggle to cross the roads and report at KPN Travels. More in store was there for me, as they had shifted the boarding point to Bommanahalli, near Sasken Buildings, opposite to WIPRO M2 office, to be exact. There weren’t any other buses towards Madurai, which could have taken me to Madurai by early morning. I had to settle with what the travel agent offerred me.
The rain was getting harder, and i saw the pick-up van screaming out for the travellers. There were two buses lined-up, and i got into one of them. Needless to say, the bus was full of Keralites, who were waiting long for the Ernakulam Volvo.
The pick-up office was horrible, coupled with the rains the effect did shoot up in Geometric Progression. No seat to sit was the silliest of the complaints that i could have raised to the receptionists, as people were crowded in the Varandah, seeking shelter from the rains. Power had gone for a vacation, and buses were late by an hour, on an average. I was standing with my umbrella open, trying to judge the direction of the wind and rotate the umbrella accordingly, and to protect myself from the staring of the co-travellers.
A good one hour late, the KPN Travels bus towards Madurai, finally, steamed off from Bomanahalli by around 10.20PM. Seating was comfortable, the neighbour was good and the drving was fast as well as smooth. It was not at all a good time to watch a Tamil movie like 'Pambarakkannaale'.. But had to live with.. Luckily, i had a good sleep, which helped me to cover up the movie disturbance.
When i opened my eyes, it was already Salem, the biggest travel junction in TamilNadu. A small break was welcome, as the bus had to be filled with additional fuel. It had rained in Salem too, and the temperature was below normal.
The next round of sleep took me to Dindigul. The sun was out and the clock read 6AM, when we crossed the Dindigul by-pass. The one hour journey to Madurai was good, with exotic scenery on either side of the road. The sun was creeping up from the folds of a small hillock on the eastern side. The rail was running parallel to the road, just below the hills.
The truck traffic on this stretch was too much; the bus could hardly go on top-gear. Large containers were very frequent and the driver was trying his best to cover-up. It took one hour and twenty minutes to travel 70kms.

I got down at the last stop, near Periyar Bus Stand, when the time read 7.30AM. I could very easily locate Laxmi Towers, where Raman was residing. The room was at the backside of Koodal Alagar Koil, another famous temple in the city of Temples. Time was running out and we got out very quickly and vacated the room. After having Break-fast, we headed towards the famous Madurai Meenakshi Amman Koil, hardly 2 Kms from the Lodge.
The history of this temple goes back to centuries.. The Pandyas have contributed much to the completion of the temple complex. But credit goes to the Nayaks for moulding the temple to its current form and structure. This temple is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareswara, and his consort Parvathi or Meenakshi. The four gigantic and mighty towers serve as the entry point to the temple complex. On first look, one can hardly make out any difference between the Gopurams at Chidambaram, Kancheepuram and Madurai. Everything looks alike. But the style of the sculptures, the idols and their meaning differs a lot.
The main attraction of the temple complex is the 'Aayiram Kaal Mandapam' or the 'Thousand Pillar Hall', located between the main temple and the east Gopuram. This Mandapam, has nearly 980 pillars inside and each pillar is a demonstration of the supreme dravidian architectural heritage and skills.. The Nataraja, the dancing form of lord shiva, can be found at the central part of this hall. The pillars clearly indicated the different styles, mainly of the Pallavas, Pandyas and the Nayaks. This is the climax - nobody in this universe can beat Dravidians in the Temple sculpture art.
But among all these, The Chidamabaram temple and Kancheepuram temple are those which we felt as classics, than the much commercialised Palani, Madurai, and Rameswaram temples.
The main route from the eastern gopuram till the main temple is occuppied by petty shops. They sell everything on earth thats related with Hindu spiritual heritage. The garlands, rings, photos of lord Shiva and Parvati, bhasma etc.
We got back to the road outside the west gopuram. The whole ambience of the area reminded me of another temple town, Palani..
Thats all we had time for Madurai, and we had to start immediately to Rameswaram. The highlight of the trip was a meter-guage train journey from Manamadurai to Rameswaram..
While travelling to the bus-stand, we crossed Vaigai river.. The reality is much far from the songs 'Thenmadurai vaigai Nadi..' or 'vaigaikkarai katre nillu..'. I dont think any 'katru' (the wind) will stop here, now a days. The river bed has become a waste dump area.. Though, it will not come anywhere near the famous Coovum in Madras, this river also has its own grievences. There was little water in the river, thanks to the Vaigai Dam near Theni, which provides drinking water and irrigation facility to Madurai and Theni districts.
We reached the bus-stand by around 9.15AM. Buses towards Madras, Trichy, Rameswaram, Thirunelveli etc leave from this bus-stand, and its name is one of the strangest one can come across - 'Maattu Dhaavani'. 'Maadu' in Tamil means cattle and 'Dhaavani' means half-saree.. We tried our best to relate the name to the bus-stand but......
The bus towards Pramakudi was just leaving and we got into the last seats. It was a one hour journey to Manamadurai. The road was running parallel to Vaigai, and the area had some agricultural activity around. NH49, highway to Rameswaram, was good and we got down at Manamadurai at 10.30AM exactly. We rushed to the railway station only to find that the 6701 Rameswaram express was arriving one hour late, by 11.30AM.
Manamadurai was a typical TamilNadu meter-guage station, in the Madras-Rameswaram MG line. One may have a 'seen somewhere in Tamil movies' feeling while standing at the station. Unlike other stations, beating our expectations, this station was very neat and clean. The sun was still under the covers and the weather was slightly windy. We had a good walk round the station. This is a junction too, where one line from Karaikkudi bifurcates and run to Virudunagar, south of Madurai. The Madurai-Manamadurai stretch has just been converted into Broad-Guage, and probably that explains why there is no direct train from Madurai to Rameswaram. The Palghat train terminates its jouney at Madurai Junction.
The 6701 MeterGuage Rameswaram express left Manamadurai exactly at 11.30AM. The compartments were not at all crowded, and hence we had a relaxed journey. The next halt was at Paramakudi, at 12.05PM. I had a fair look at this village-town, which gave two national-award winning actors for Tamil - the great KamalHasan and Vikram.
The train resumed its journey and when we crossed Ramanathapuram, the district head-quarters, it was 1PM. The topography changed suddenly.. For almost half an hour, from here, the journey was boring, for the sights offered nothing. We had to wait till Mandapam station, the gateway to Rameswaram. We had a crossing here for the 6714 Sethu Express heading towards Tambaram.
We armed ourselves with camera and were waiting at the doors for the sight of Pamban bridge. The ocean was visible at the right side, and the road was running parallel. Just after 10 minutes, the train kissed the entrance of the Pamban Bridge. That was THE SIGHT of the journey.. The train bridge was running low, very near to the sea-water, compared to the Road-Bridge. Remains of the old bridge was seen at the left-hand side. It took nearly 5 minutes (or more than that)? to cross the bridge. After the bridge, the train terminated its journey at Rameswaram Station, and the time was 2.30PM.
We made a good deal with the Rickshaw Driver who agreed to take us around Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi. After having a refreshing lunch, we started off to Dhanushkodi. This place has a tragic history behind - Dhanushkodi was completly smashed away in the cyclone that hit the eastern coast way back in 1964, killing some 2000 odd people in the island. The effect of cyclone was such that it didnt even spare the Railway Station and the train that was halted there. Acres and Kilometers of land were either taken away by the sea or were covered by dumps of sand and mud. 12 years after the tragedy, the road was reconstructed to certain extent, till 3 Kms away from old Dhanushkodi town. One can still see the ruins of Dhanushkodi Railway Station and the old meter guage rails, along the way.
The road was just in middle of the sand covered area, which will be taken away by the sea during the tides. We stopped at one place and got into the vast sand land. It cannot be termed as a beach, as the sea was way away from the roads. This place was the sets for Manirathanam's 'Kannathil Muthamittal', Bala's 'Nanda' and various other Tamil Movies.
Moving ahead, the rick driver gave us the topography of the whole place and told us how difficult it is to get to the tip of Dhanushkodi. The Navy Outpost is very vigilant, as the emmigrants from Srilanka are very frequent in these areas. According to him, one month back, when Srilanka almost moved into the Civil war, the count of emmigrants within one week was around 1000. So we had to sacrifice our quest to adventure into the final point.
The Kodandaramaswamy temple was one among the victims of the 1964 Cyclone. But the structure survived and the temple was revived in 1978 and now is a major spot of pilgrimage. It is beleived that it was here Vibhishana - brother of Ravana, surrendered to Lord Rama and apologized for the abduction of Sita.
We went 6kms further towards Dhanushkodi, till the road dissappeared. To visit the cape, we needed to wait for the van which slides through the sand for 3kms and ferries the fishing community along the beaches. Risk and time were not there to spare, so we dropped the plan. After spending sometime on the beach, we started back to Rameswaram.
On the way we had a halt at our President's, Sri A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's house at Rameswaram.
Rameswaram Ramanathasamy temple is very old. This is the place where Rama offerred prayers to Shiva, and hence the name Ramanathasamy.. The temple premises were not clean at all, wondering what was wrong there. This was one thing that i observed right from the beginning. In spite of such a rich cultural heritage, Madurai and Rameswaram both are dirty cities. People seldom bother to preserve these things intact. I remembered Raman's words - Tamil's glory is in the past, not at the present. Very true, as i was just expereincing the present with the burden and expectations of the past.
There are 22 'Theerthams' (water sources) inside the temple. It is widely believed that a bath in all the 22 theerthams can take away all your sins.
The highlight of the temple is the 200 meters long corridor inside the temple complex. Our interests settled down when we saw that the pillars have been modified, covering the freshness and stillness of the past. Whay cant these people preserve these as they were?
Finally, a bath near the temple shore, to end the Rameswaram visit. Though our first decision was to go to Tirunelveli via Thiruchendur (another shore temple, dedicated to Subramanya), we decided to get back to Madurai. The bus was faster than the train, and after providing good entertainment with the movie 'Gilli', the bus left us at the 'Maattudhaavani' at sharp 10 PM, after 3 and half hours of ride. It was 11.30PM when we took a room and then back to the shelters....

Early morning 6AM, we left to Tirparangundram, 10kms south to Madurai. Its a hillock temple dedicated to lord Subramanya. There were 3 layers of halls, built on the slope of the hill. The temple was very much crowded, and hence we got out very quickly.
At 8.50AM, the bus towards Thirunelveli started off from 'Maattudhaavani'. The driver was agonisingly slow, which costed me the visit to Thiruchendur. The route was very dry, with only Virudunagar, Sattur and Kovilppatti being the major centres. The road was straight and smooth and it was only a matter of 150kms, for which it took almost 4 hours.
Very near to Thirunelveli, we noticed a diversion to 'Sivalapperi'.. I was just wondering how the village names were reflected in the movies like 'Sivalapperi Pandi', 'Panchalamkurissi', 'Kumbakarai Thangayya' etc..
Thirunelveli busstand was far away from the town, and was crowded with a fair amount of Keralites. After lunch, we got into the bus towards Thoothukkudi (Tuticorin). The one hour ride through NH 7A was not that entertaining as the road was bad. Tuticorin is a port town in the eastern coast.
The Mysore express left the station at sharp 16:05 hours and it marked the end of another wonderful trip.