In search of the sun.

A thousand and twenty three years ago (very precise calculation that. Take note.) Raja Raja Cholan ascended the throne and set rolling a series of incidents that ended in this writer getting soaked last week, in perhaps one of the most beautiful locations in India. It all starts with an over-whelming urge to shoot something more than just flower macros. (This story, not Raja Raja’s.) This was accompanied (not on the piano) by an urge to travel again. See places new, places different.

It was, therefore, to a long-pending travel idea one turned to - to retrace the route Vanthiyathevar, a historical character and the hero of Ponniyin Selvan - a Tamil historical-romance, took on a mission to bring Raja Raja Cholan back to Tanjavur and put him on the throne. Rajaraja was in Sri Lanka then, busy shopping for new kingdoms, unaware that political conspiracies and such were ripping apart the homeland. So, Vanthiyathevar travels to Tanjavur and from there, to Sri Lanka, via Kodiyakarai. It is about Kodiyakarai I was talking of, in that first paragraph.

Indulge me a bit now. Take out a nice big map of India, or better yet, a map of Tamil Nadu, and spread it out on the desk. (If you are reading this online, why not fire up the old Google Earth thingamajig?) Good. As you can notice, the coast of Tamil Nadu looks much like a human face, with a triangular piece of land jutting out - nose like - just a little to the North of Sri Lanka. The tip, which the British called Point Calimere, is Kodiyakarai. At this point, The Bay of Bengal bumps into the Palk Strait, surrounding the tip-of-the nose in water. Which means, when one places oneself just so, one can see the sun rising up in the water, and 12 hours later and 180 degrees afterwards, setting in it as well.

And thus, a wet Tuesday evening saw a young man, backpack stuffed with supplies for a three day haul and camera batteries likewise, in search of just such a phenomenon. The journey was unplanned, in the hope (not without justification) that the rather dependable buses run by the many state transport corporations would ferry me, and all willing folks, Point A through points B, C and D to Point Calimere.

Leg 1 - Chennai’s bus terminal to Tanjavur’s - was accomplished in a space of 8 hours. Memories of waking up in the night to see and hear the rivers Kollidam and Cauveri swollen with rain, and trees on the road, did not prepare me for the deluge at Tanjavur’s chaotic old-bus stands. Wet through and through, I persisted. First task (and if you plan such a trip, yours would be, too) was to haggle with an auto-rickshaw driver a daily-rate. For a sum of 400 rupees and odd (including the cost of fuel) auto drivers turn hosts and tour guides in Tanjavur. Put-putting you from temple to temple and fort to fort, touching every high-point in the tourist agenda.

That’s how you arrive at the palace of the Nayaks, and subsequently the Marathis. 

After buying the right of admission and the right to photograph (rights that cost Rs. 5 and Rs. 30 respectively), one is bade to enter. And permitted to gasp at the treasures within. For, at this palace, between the wall to wall display of stone and bronze sculptures, Raja Serfoji and his clan beam from every tapestry in every room. As do two of the most beautiful women you’ll ever see – Parvati and Sivakami. Exquisite chola bronzes, dating to the 10th and 11th centuries, with every feature and every curve designed and sculpted for maximum impact. If the hourglass-like Sivakami is not draw enough, the palace-turned museum has within its fold the skeleton of a 93 feet long whale. And if that still isn’t enough to entice, it promises brilliant views over the surrounding countryside. All three were, singly and combined, strong enough to pull my jaw down and keep it there for two hours.

By which time, the rains had let up, and the sky was acquiring a tinge of blue.
Cue: photography. Temple. The oldest granite temple in the world, definitely in India. And during its time, one of the tallest structures in the world. Here, I did what every tourist was vainly trying to do – capture the entire splendour in a measly 5 inch LCD screen. As well as murmuring in awe in all the right places. The temple is built rather like a fort, with an outer wall, a moat, an inner wall and the actual temple. And all along the sides, granite – aged and reddened and still bearing the 11th century Tamil inscriptions. Every visitor here likes to think he or she knows more about the temple than others. And this manifests in strange tales and half-truths – prophecies of Marco Polo’s visits and British rule, statues looking remarkably like Buddha and Jesus – and much more. Much, much more.

End of the day, and end of all available space in the camera’s memory card.

Exhausted and wet, I trudged to the bus stand, (the auto driver dispensed with after fulfilling his end of the bargain) to hunt for a bus that would take me to Kodiyakarai. While there were buses to every place, near and far, from Tanjavur, there wasn’t one that would directly take me to Kodiyakarai. Instead: bus to Kumbakkonam, from thither to Mannargudi from whence to Vedaranyam, where, finally, a bus would go to Kodiyakarai.

This only meant one thing. A wallet stuffed, not with cash, but with bus tickets.

The wild-run also meant one other thing - I’d have to sit at the far end of the bus, as it traversed rutted, barely-there roads.

If you haven’t yet experienced the back-seat, let me illustrate. Take a few roast peanuts, drop them into a steel tumbler, cover it so the peanuts don’t fall out, and shake violently. The sound they make is eerily similar to the sound your skull makes when it meets the roof of the bus.

But, there’s company on my journey eastwards. No, not the many people in the bus. While interesting people, they do have a tendency to get off (their stops reached) just when conversation heats up. No. Company is in the form of rivers – frothing at the mouth. Along they came, indifferent to the village boys’ fishing rods and the village girls’ pots and pans. East, the two of us went, both our destinations the same – a sea, a place to end the journey.

Vedaranyam once lived up to its name – a primeval forest. (Aranyam means forest, veda+aranyam therefore meant a forest dating to vedic times) In Ponniyin Selvan, it is described that way, with wild horses and quicksands and methane fuelled balls of fire. Sadly, 1000 years and growing population has turned forests into towns and horses into rattling auto-rickshaws.

But, as is always the case, some of that forest is still preserved, in the form of the Point Calimere sanctuary. Here, wild horses do roam the land, as do deer, foxes and rabbits. Here, one can stay at the Forest lodge, (with the permission of the forest officer at Nagapattinam) and employ the services of a guide who will point out hoof marks and suchlike. The sanctuary also preserves, as much as possible, a very old lighthouse – built by the Cholas. Entry and photography at the park again comes at a price – Rs. 5 and Rs. 30.

Walking in the rain, on slush that was once a track, I almost reached the Chola lighthouse – water had inundated the sanctuary and made further progress impossible. But deer and monkeys – the latter surely cousins of the ones that attacked a politician recently – were spotted. 

Flanking the sanctuary are two incredible tourist attractions. The first one is a small shrine on top of the hill. Legend has it that Rama once stood here, before setting out to Sri Lanka, in contemplation of the task he had on hand. If the legend is true, Rama must have had really, really tiny feet. The shrine is set at the highest point in the sanctuary and does command a brilliant view – and one wants to believe that one can see the tip of the Emerald Island from here.

The other, the beach, and the end of land. Point reached. A long, narrow strip of sand that slowly descends into marsh, this beach is now monopolised by fisherfolk. And, this morning, they were returning from what appeared to me a rich haul. Boats and nets, teeming with fish. Of all kinds and shapes and sizes. And fishermen, wondering what fool would come to a desolate harbour on a wet morning. The fool was waiting for the sunrise promised.

It was a glorious sunrise. The kind of sunrise that sets writers scrambling for an adequate cliché.

The kind of sunrise that makes an unplanned journey over 3 days of bad roads and wet weather worthwhile. Silver tipped clouds shredding the sun into a thousand fingers of gold. Fingers that turn grey skies pink and blue waters gold. It was the kind of sunrise one always assumes happens only in a painter’s dream, or under carefully controlled settings in a photographer’s studio. And here it was – live and on the ground. The kind of sunrise, I now find, very difficult to describe. You truly had to be there.

At Point Calimere, you’ll learn, there is a point in nature-worship, after all.


Originally published (with minor edits) in BTW Mag, December 2007

No comments: