Saturday, January 30, 2010
Pilgrimage to Velankanni
Even a non-pilgrimage-type like yours truly occasionally gets caught in the circuit. My trip to Velankanni in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu was one such trip. I had gone with Susan to Chennai on a family matter, but since I had asked a ‘mannat’ to visit and pay obeisance at the shrine of Our Lady of Health at Velankanni, we decided to borrow our daughter Shalini’s Swift and drive down. Family friend and classmate, Varghese and Sheila who also had come for the function in Chennai offered to accompany us. A most welcome gesture, affording an opportunity to travel together and to catch up with all the gossips and juicy stories about friends and relatives.
Though I have driven a swift off and on, I had never done any long distance travel or driving on one. Also, I had never had an occasion to do any serious driving in Tamil Nadu in the last 30 odd years except for driving through Tamil Nadu from Bengaluru to Kochi. So for me the vehicle and terrain both were new. Almost.
We had planned to start early at 6 AM,on 25th January, 2010 but the evening revelry the day before dragged on to 4 AM and forcing oneself to get up after even 7 AM with much difficulty. To cut a long story short, we picked up a much-grumbling, hungry Varghese couple, who were not binging with us the previous night, from the Madras Boat Club at 8 AM and headed towards ECR, which we never reached. By some mess up, which I blame Varghese for and he in turn blames me for, we missed the turning for ECR at Thiruvanmiyur and ended up on OMR, the Old Mamallpuram Road, officially renamed the Rajiv Gandhi Salai, lovingly and rightly called the IT Corridor. And what a happy mistake! We had a nice drive, past so many IT buildings, with so many cuts on the road being used to the full by buses and vans transporting the IT labour of India toiling in the warrens of the IT Hubs. Beyond Karappakkam the road became less congested and we had a fairly comfortable drive. One thing that struck us is the total absence of eateries on the road. Due to getting up late, we never had a chance to eat breakfast and in the Haryana style, thought we can grab a bite en-route. We found no place on the left side till near Poonjeri, where Flora Restaurant gave us fabulous breakfast of idli, dosa, poorie potato at amazingly cheap rates. We enjoyed the much-wanted meal and proceeded to the destination.
Up to Chidambaram via Puducherri was a smooth drive, but we had a tough time navigating through Chidambarm. Varghese wisecracked that finding the right road is the modern-day Chidambara Rahasyam! From my previous experience of studentship at Annamali University, I had learnt the hard way that there are no good eateries in the temple town and we decided to carry on.
We just stopped at Karaikal to click a few images of boats in the quay. Karaikal to Sirkazhi is about 12 Km and the road is just OK.
Sirkazhi, made famous by the Tamil singer Sirkazhi Givindarajan, who sung many famous songs for MGR is a sleepy little temple town with narrow roads and heavy traffic. As it was getting close to 2 PM and as we were keen to have lunch in time, we explored the town for a decent restaurant to have lunch. By sheer coincidence, we chanced upon a restaurant of sorts being run from a converted garage of a hotel. The ‘meals’ was basic, but tasty and clean.
The next stop was at the Muslim Pilgrimage destination, Nagore , the road to which is tolerably good. Nagore town itself boasts of the worst patch in the whole route, with slow traffic on congested routes. We had some ‘reliable sources’ which told us about the availability of bargain ‘foreign’ stuff at Nagore. So we went ahead and asked the roadside shop keeper who directed us to the shos near the ‘Dargah’.
The Dargah itself turned out to be a very historic site. Meeran Sahib Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid was 23rd in the line of descendants of Prophet Muhamad and on his own right a great Sufi saint and preacher. This is probably one of the oldest shrines in Tamil Nadu. The golden dome and five minarets are impressive, but the promised ‘foreign goods’ were disappointing, to say the least. Unless of course, you are looking for cheap melmoware and glass crockery and cheap food items.
Having wasted half an hour we hurried to reach our destination but got stuck in a traffic muddle in Nagapattinam and ended up taking a small road to Velankanni. Though narrow and winding, this road was less travelled and easy to drive.
We reached Hotel Sea Gate at 5 PM and dumped our luggage in the rooms.
Sea Gate is part of a larger chain, comprising of Hotel Picnic, claimed to be the first ‘luxury’ hotel in the town, the more recent and better appointed Hotel Sea Gate and the neighbouring Sea Gate Resorts, which has cottages with three bed rooms each. The hotel surpassed my expectations as far as cleanliness, service and facilities are concerned. We dumped our luggage and headed straight for the shrine which is within easy walking distance from the hotel.
Velankanni, meaning the Virgin of village Velan was once a rather busy sea port in the 16th Century. The Danes, Dutch and the Portuguese traders purchased spices from here for export to Europe. Three miracles are said to have led to the establishment of this shrine. The first relates to a boy carrying milk to a customer in the village. He is supposed to have rested besides a pond on the way, where Virgin Mary appeared before him along with infant Jesus and asked for milk. The boy obliged Mother Mary and hurried on to the customer apologizing for the delay and shortage of milk. The milk container, however was found full to the brim. The customer asked the boy to show him the place and he too had the vision of the Holy Mother and child. The pond beside with the vision occurred was named ‘Matha Kulam’, meaning the pond of Mother. In the second instance, Mother appeared before a handicapped boy selling buttermilk and cured him and sent message to a wealthy Catholic living in the village asking him to build a chapel. A thatched chapel was promptly built.
It is, however the third and more spectacular miracle that won the place world attention. A few years after the chapel was built, some Portuguese merchant sailors were miraculously rescued from a storm by the Mother and the survivers were brought to the thatched chapel. As a mark of gratitude to the Holy Mother they built the first permanent shrine here. Such is the fame of the shrine that today the original church is replaced by a magnificent Basalica and plans are on for further development and beautification. The pristine white Gothic structure with contrasting red tiles against the background of the Bay of Bengal is indeed a sight worth seeing even if you are not a believer. Beleivers swear by the powers of Our Lady to restore health to the afflicted. More than 2 million believers throng to the shrine during the Feast in September every year. It is customery to offer before the deity metal, silver and gold replicas of parts of the body which is sought to be cured.
The route from the Church to the beach is lined on both sides with shops selling curios, religious knick-knacks and all sorts of stuff. In the 2004 Tsunami, which occurred immediately after the conclusion of the morning Tamil Mass, thousands of people who were purchasing stuff and almost the entire shop keepers were washed away by the sea, leaving all inside the church unharmed.
We were just in time to attend the evening Novena prayers, Rosary and Mass in Tamil.
On return to the hotel we were happily surprised to find that the restaurant at the hotel offered one of the best prawn preparations I have ever had. Rather costly for a small town on the Coromandel Coast, the food was excellent. The hotel which was booked in advance by our friend Varghese turned out to be value for money.
After a morning visit to the Shrine and the obligatory purchase of souvenirs, we set off back to Chennai at 9 AM. We had breakfast of idli and dosa at an eatery near the Bus Stand for surprisingly cheap rates. While we were in a hurry to reach the destination in time for the evening prayers on our way to Velankanni, on the return trip there were no such pressures on our minds. Vargheses were leaving by a late night train to Kochi and we were leaving only the next day. We decided to take in some sights on our way back. Picjavarm, the second largest mangrove on earth was on my list. However, I was out voted and we decided to give is a skip, a mistake according to me.
The road from Karaikal to Nagore is croweded and busy and crossing Nagore townsip with its narrow and crowd3ed streets was a pain again. Our first stop was at Tranqubar the little known former Danish colony. The Danes established this busy port in the costal town on ‘Tharangambadi’ meaning the singing waves for trading in pepper. It survived as a busy port and centre of Protestant Missionary work for several decades. The port and township were set up by one Danish Captain on behalf of the Danish East India Company Ove Gjedde. The fort which survives well to this day was named Fort Dansborg. The town was also the place from where the redoubtable Bartholomus Zeigenbalg, the first Lutheran Missionary operated. Rev. Zeigenbalg is also credited with as many as 24 ‘firsts’ including the first European Protestant Missinonary in India, the first to translate the Bible to Tamil, the first to set up a Tamil printing press and much more. A memorial to him stands by the beach. What attracted us to the small relic of colonial history was what is now known as the “Bungalow on the Beach”. Originally an imposing mansion owned by the Danes, the building had remained neglected and dilapidated till the innovative Neemran Hotels took over and lovingly restored it to its original glory. Now this is among the finest examples of restoration of old heritage buildings and the famous hospitality of the group that runs many heritage resorts all over the country.
Beside the Bungalow, there are the remains of a granite temple with very fine carvings. The remaining parts were destroyed in the Tsunami. A Danish arch made of brick and lime mortar stands intact mocking the poor craftsmanship of modern PWD contractors of today. We were not lucky to visi the fort which is now being run as a museum by the Tamil Nadu Government. The imposing King’s Street has several impressive mansions and smaller houses dating back to the Danish days. A charming quiet retreat for those in search of peaceful retreat.
We decided to stop and have quick lunch at Puthucherry, nee Pondicherry, also called Pondy. Unlike Tranquebar, Pondy was a French Colony and remained so till Independence. The long occupation by the Frence has left its visible and palpable impressions on Pondi and its people. Suddenly you are transported to what might as well be a small town in interior France. There is even today a sizeable population of foreigners, thanks to Auroville and the reputation as an artists’ paradise. The French Quarters and the local are easily distinguished.
Food at the Segull Restaurant by the beach was good. The drive along the beach and the lovely weather was worth the detour. Helped Susan refresh her French from the College days in Kochi!
On return we stuck to the ECR. The East Coast Road or National Highway 45A is among the best roads in the south. However, having been used to the eight lane National Highways in and around Delhi,I was not impressed. For one thing, most of the distance is only a two lane road. Also, it is very difficult to find a stretch of more than 15 metres without a curve, making overtaking very difficult if not outright impossible. A big slow truck, lorry in the South, in front of you ruins your trip. At times the turns and curves appear to be unwarranted and the result of the desire on the part of the planners to keep land owners along the road happy, at least the rich among them. There is certainly a case for straightening most curves.
Traffic was rather heavy, but orderly as always in Chennai. From Thiruvanmiyur it became pretty slow and we had to crawl at speeds best measured by inches per minute rather than miles per hour. With all the breaks and stoppages including at one place near Karaikal to collect water lily plant which was dutifully transported all the way back to Delhi by the lady, we made the 325 KM trip in just about 9 hours.
Some casual observations and impressions. Motor cycle drivers are very aggressive in Tamil Nadu. They dominate the roads and your speed is dictated by them and not by you. I have driven in Tamil Nadu after a gap of over three decades and this aggressive driving by two-wheeler drives came as a revelation to me.
Tamil Nadu might earn the distinction as the State with the rudest pedestrian behavior. People refuse to leave the centre of the road even if it is Highway. All sorts of loads including long ladders are carried on head while walking through the middle of the road. Any attempt to make them leave the passage like honking of horn, may make them turn and look at you, with the object on their head likely to hit bystanders if nor passing vehicles. In small towns even to this day, it is common to see children and men sitting by the roadside and defecating oblivious of passing vehicles and people.
Somehow, the sight of lovely jasmine flowers on the tresses of women which was once the trademark of Tamil women seem to be slowly vanishing. Similarly, the ubiquitous salwar kameez seems to have replaced the traditional sari and pavada/davani of Tamil Nadu, the last bastion of Dravidian culture.
There are surprisingly few decent eating places along the way, even in small towns like Chidambaram or Karaikal. Along the highway too Flora and Midway appear to be the only wayside eating points. A disappointment for the ones like me for whom culinary adventure is a part of the pleasure of travelling.