Recently my parents joined a package tour covering Rameshwar-Chettinad- Madurai. They were all praise for the Rameshwaram temple, chettiar mansions at Chettinad and of course the Meenakshi Amman temple at Madurai.
We too decided to explore this route on our own to be able to do it at our own pace. Rameshwar and Madurai are more on the pilgrim circuit as Rameshwaram temple is the southern dham amongst the char dhams (others being Puri-East, Dwarka -West and Badrinath-North) and Madurai for the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Usually enthusiastic tourists with an eye for offbeat places opt to add Chettinad to the list of places to visit. We fall in the latter category. Rupali and I planned to take a direct flight from Mumbai to Madurai and hire a tourist taxi online via Savaari to complete the Rameshwar- Chettinad- Madurai circuit. To plan for places of interest to be visited, we drew upon the itinerary of one of the travel agencies doing this circuit . Bookings done, we set our eyes on visiting the Tamil Nadu countryside for an off beat experience and some authentic idli, dosai , filter kaapi and chettinad cuisine. To avoid overloading, I have split this blog into 2 parts.
Part – 1
Rameshwar – Dhanushkodi- Karaikudi
As per legend, Ram is supposed to have worshipped his Lord – Shiva here after rescuing Sita from the clutches of Ravan as an atonement for killing Ravan who was a brahmin King. Hence this place is known as Ram-eshwar (a place where Ram prayed his eshwar – Lord Shiva). Rameshwar is an island south east on India’s map. It is connected to the mainland by a 108 year old 2 km long Pamban railway bridge built way back in 1911 by the British in just 3 years. It has a double-leaf bascule section midway, which can be raised to let ships and barges pass through. It is also known as the Queen of Bridges. Till the Worli-Bandra Sealink (5.6kms) came up in Mumbai, it was the longest sea bridge in India. We were twice lucky to catch a train pass on the bridge during the golden hour for a perfect kodak moment. (Click here for my train crossing video providing a full view of the bridge). Trivia: The Indira Gandhi road bridge which runs parallel to the Pamban bridge was inaugurated in 1988 and it took all of 14 years to build! (To know more about the transportation history of Pamban bridge click here).
Rameshwar is a sleepy island town where visitors wake up early to line up to offer pooja at the Rameshwaram temple. The Rameshwaram temple in its current structure was built during the 12th century by the Pandya Dynasty. The temple has the longest corridor among all Hindu temples in India (to know more about the temple and stories around it click here)
Besides the Rameshwaram temple, not many know about it being the hometown of A.P.J Abdul Kalam, India’s missile man and an inspiring “peoples President” from 2002-2007 appointed during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Priministership. We visited the memorial on 14th Oct, a day before his birth anniversary which has been declared as the World Students Day internationally by the UN. It is a very well laid out memorial dedicated to the life and times of APJ Abul Kalam. It captures his journey over the years in the form of a photo gallery and wax statues of important events in his life. After the visit, I felt the memorial can get further enhanced by introducing an audio/ video section which can bring out powerful quotes from some of his inspiring books and interactions with the general public as well.
One of the interesting observations from the visit was that, Rameshwar being a temple town, no liquor shops are available there. Also surprisingly, for whatever reasons, we could not find popular FMCG brands like Mango Fruity or Thumbs Up or Bisleri easily at the local shops.
About 20 odd kms southeast of Rameshwar is Dhanushkodi. It is believed that after rescuing his wife, Lord Ram destroyed the Ram setu bridge with arrows from his bow, on request of Vibhishan (the new Lanka King), thus the town is believed to have got its name – ‘Dhanushkodi’, meaning ‘end of bow’. It is the southernmost tip of India on this side of our geography. It has the ruff Arabian sea with its emerald blue waters on one side and the calm Indian Ocean on the other. Sri Lanka is only 14 miles from here. This was a popular port for trade with Sri Lanka till 1965 when a massive hurricane wiped out the entire village. Since then Dhanushkodi is uninhabited and has not been rebuilt, nor does it have electricity. Access has been opened up only during the day between 10am- 4pm. If you are a fish lover, you should plan to book your meal in one of the beach side shacks as you approach Dhanushkodi. This not only ensures that your lunch is ready by the time you start your return journey but also provides you with the freshest catch, right out of the ocean. (To know more about Dhanushkodi and its history click here)
Chettinad – Karaikudi
Rameshwar to Karaikudi is about 140 kms. As the roads in Tamil Nadu are good with not much traffic on this section, it takes about 2.5-3 hours to cover. During my interaction with our driver, one eye opener for me was about the lack of availability of CNG as yet across Tamil Nadu. Apparently the centre – state politics seems to be playing out as TN has less than 50 CNG stations till date.
The Chettinad region covers 75 villages of which Karaikudi is the largest town with Devakottai and Athangudi being the other popular places in the Chettinad region. Chettinad is known for the sea faring Chettiyar community which made their fortunes trading extensively with the south east asian regions like Burma, Mauritius, Singapore, Sri Lanka etc. Their mansions are massive, covering more than an acre, sometimes occupying 2 streets. The mansions used to house the entire joint family with 2 rooms (one for pooja and other as living room) for every family member with a common courtyard. Each family has a dedicated fireplace in the common kitchen. The architecture captures their rich lifestyle. It has huge burma teakwood doors at the entrance with intricate carvings, burma teak pillars all over, italian marble for flooring, stained glass for the windows and intricate woodwork on the ceiling and smooth walls coated with a mixture of egg white and lime giving them a sheen that has lasted for decades.
Over the years, as family members moved out to the city , some of the mansions have been brought down, some left to the caretakers or a few have opted to convert them into tourist or pre-wedding shoot spots with visiting fees while quite a few have converted them in boutiquish homestay type hotels with modern amenities.These provide you with a complete package including traditional meals served on a banana leaf and to be had like a local without fork and spoons. We had researched a few of these – Chidambaram Vilas, The Bangala for our stay and ended up booking ourselves at The Bangala. (to know more about the chettiar mansions and their glorious heritage click here)
Let me leave you with some time on hand to enjoy the images and explore the links before sharing the part 2 about a surprise guest, what to look for to buy while at Chettinad and our Madurai visit. Cheers for now!!
Acknowledgements- My Friends Ashish Parulekar and Sheetal Nagle for being a solid member of my blog support team.
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