Vol-I: Planning and Delhi-Chennai-Kanchipuram/Mahabalipuram
This Christmas we went to south on a temple trip of Tamilnadu. First the planning part goes. As always it was SPV who intiated the move and prodded me into action. This time the group was going to be bigger as our parents and, hold your breath, parents-in-laws were also on it. So we were going to be an entourage of the out law and in law families including two sets of father-mother fil-mil. So we already had a lot to handle to begin with.
Our itinerary was decided after due deliberations and consultations with friends and pen friends and keeping interests of the members in mind. We were told about the rush that we must face if we plan during last December to January first half. Our itinerary crystallized as Chennai-Tiruchirapally-Rameshwaram-Madurai-Kanyakumari(Cape)-Tiruvanantpuram(TVC). We had also planned to cover Tirupati(TPTY) and Mahabalipuram – Kanchipuram with Chennai as the base. We had decided to stay in Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) properties. All of above was result of detailed deliberations and research of locations, routes and distances and of course consensual preferences. Myself and SPV had already been to most of these places and that backgrounds also helped. For our journey starting on 24th December and return on 3rd January, we had finished planning in the first week of September. Onward train Ticket and accommodation booking was over by September end.
We booked all our accommodations, which were planned at Chennai(two nights and a day), Trichy(a day), Rameshwaram, Madurai and Kaniyakumari (a day and a night each). Though, this tour might look rushed, it was much more relaxed than the similar package tour of TTDC.
As advised by the contacts in Chennai, we had booked the TTDC conducted Volvo day tour to TPTY on the first day of our arrival, as any other option was not workable for the group of our composition with ages spanning from 2 years to 76. The bus would start from Chennai on the morning of 26.12.08 and return by about 11:00pm.
I would like to underline here that during rush periods like new year and other festivals, one can not do a day trip to Tirupati from Chennai. For quick pilgrimages, the best option is the conducted tours of tourism corporations of states like Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka which conduct day tours from their respective bases. The other option is to book e-Darshan tickets from the counter at Venkateshwara college in delhi and other similar counters whose information is here. Do remember that each one of the Darshanarthis would have to be present physically at these counters where a thumb impression and photo will be taken before issuing a bar-coded advance ticket for Darshan on the requisitioned date. Someone entering the queue at the designated time should have the Darshan within two hours, under normal circumstances.
As it was not possible for us to collect the entire party for the advance booking and the TTDC Volvo offer sounded convenient (though wee bit costly at about a thousand bucks per ticket) we decided to go in for the latter. For TTDC tour booking all the members were not required. (How could we have known of the perils of Volvos beforehand!)
We booked the accommodation with TTDC hotels at the places mentioned above and the Conducted tours to Tirupati and Mahabalipuram/Kanchipuram from the TTDC office located in the TN state emporium building at the Baba Kharagsingh Marg State Emporia Complex. We booked onward train tickets on Hazrat Nizamuddin-Chennai Rajdhani express and the return was booked on Trivandrum Rajdhani. We had planned to end the southern part of journey at Trivandrum with an idea of having some quick backwater splash. The draw of the picturesque Konkan Railway was an added incentive for coming via that route. Only if Airtel willed.
The Bolt from the Blue
The time passed quietly before it was mid of December, when we were woken up with a rude shock from TTDC office. We were informed that all the conducted tours to Tirupati had been cancelled on all the dates of December last week and January first week. Now this was like a major dampener on our religious ambitions, a Tusharaghat on our hopes of an assured and comfortable Darshan of Balaji. But it was going to be the ‘fait accompli’ now and we had to live with that. We sprung into action and changed the day of the second conducted trip of Mahabalipuram to 26th December from 27th and TTDC obliged. We called up the Tirupati help line (at 0877-2277777, it is a proper call center) to know about the likelihood of Darshan on our own and we were told that about 7000 tickets are sold everyday starting 5:00am and we could get the tickets by joining the the queue at about midnight. We also requested TTDC to arrange some alternative for us. The ever so helping CC executive of TTDC, Mrs Jamuna gave us the number of a gentleman, ostensibly in APTDC Chennai office, who told us that he could arrange the advance tickets for us, costing Rs 50 each. It sounded too good to be true, but as they say sometimes miracle too happen and thinking that the gentleman was some part-reincarnation of Balaji, we rushed a friend, SRM, from our Chennai office, and that is when the miracle went bust. The gentleman told him that the tickets will be part barter for the Rs 800 per head fee that will be charged for the service of taking us to Tirupati and guiding us to the nearest queue-head, standing in which we had to get that Rs50 Darshan ticket and then the travel back to Chennai after Darshan, as and when we get that done. This queue was the same queue that I mentioned earlier. This was a fierce sledgehammer strike on the fibreglass citadel of our hopes that had mushroomed since we first talked with the APTDC man and then made our friend rush to him with the entire passenger list as if on a fire fighting mission. We knew that we were going to be taken on a ride, that we could avoid. So we asked our friend to retreat immediately from the holy commercial bastions and decided that we will decide on the TPTY trip after reaching Chennai.
The Journey Begins
Well, we packed the least of the things that we could and you needed a change of at least seven sets if you were going to wake up seven mornings to visit some very important temples. Gods would not like you in smelly garb. So my party had 12 bags and SPVs had about 7. Hoping that we will be given the bed linen in the long distance trains and the hotels, we did not carry blankets and bed sheets. Thank god for small mercies, like warmer weather in South while the chill was setting up in north. So woolens also were spared and what we wore while setting out from Delhi were the only woolens with us.
We set out from our homes for station in just five taxis. The Hazrat Nizamuddin station’s Kale Khan side is not very welcoming, despite handling all of the passengers staying east of Yamuna. The Chennai Rajdhani arrived late at the platform and departed with a delay of about 30 minutes.
The Blindfolded Ride
We were taken aback with the exteriors of the train, with all the windows covered with the vinyl Airtel trainlong poster. The covering had rendered the window pans almost opaque. I was numb at the thoughtlessness of such a move. On one hand there is accepted premium over windows and a view, what with the imported trains having much larger and clearer windows and on the other, someone decides to cover up whatever view existed in those dingy, rickety, cockroach-mouse infested relics of a bygone era. Even normal express trains have better coaches. But we could have lived with all that only if they had left the windows to be. But they did not and we lived a blindfolded existence for next about 30 hours, in this instance.
A few window pans were clear as someone had peeled off the layer of advertisement material. We also tried to peel it off from our windows but our knife and scissors (swiss) efforts were met with resistance from the Airtel staff, though the railway staff tacitly supported us. In the end we had half of our pan clear. You know Rajdhani have few and far between stops and it was pasted from outside. This was one of the very few times of seething annoyance with Airtel.
We reached chennai in the night of 25.12.08 at about 10:30pm and were subjected to some not so unexpected situations. The pre-paid booth for Taxis was hidden back near the suburban station, which we could locate. But we were told that there were no Taxis and it would take at least an hour before we could get a ride. We knew we were in for many rides. This was as per our gathered information and we knew that we had to persevere the stonewalling antics. So we, a group of 17 humans and 19 bags waited till we got our taxis in half an hour. We reached the hotel and were taken aback to know that the hotel Himalaya, that we had booked was not the hotel where we would be provided accommodation. The alternate hotel was nearby-I forgot the name.
By look of the hotel and the place, we knew that we had made a mistake. The conditions of rooms affirmed this notion. We consoled ourselves that we are going to spend just two nights in those rooms. We pulled out our mosquito repellents and called it a day-some at that. The odor from the tandoori shop in front of our hotel was not able to sneak into our rooms, only the noise and some breeze could. The major criteria behind the selection of the hotel was its proximity to the TTDC office.
In Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram
The next morning(26.12.08) we were booked on the day round trip to Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram. In our original schedule we were to go to Tirupati. As told in the begining, we had made this change after we were informed of the cancellation of the Tirupati trip. The second day we had kept as a reserve which we would use for Tirupati Trip on our own if the situation was favorable.
We went to the TTDC office nearby at the Wallajah road, near the Chepauk stadium, and were shortly ushered into our Volvo. We went to Kanchipuram first. Our grossly impolite driver was a Dacoit look-alike and won’t have anyone speaking or moving in the aisle while the bus was moving. He was also not favorable to any requests of stopping the bus to let kids answer the natures’ repetitive calls. Despite the fact that we could hardly afford to miss those. But he told a remedy even for that-tie the thing with a rope.
We arrived Kanchipuram in one and a half hour. Conducted tours, even if on a Volvo, are so rushed that you just get to do the ritual of temple/place hopping. It only adds to the experience if your guide spoke little and at that in an incomprehensible manner. Since we were the largest group in the bus, we were the last to reassemble after visit to the first temple in Kanchipuram-The Ekambarnathar temple.
(Kanchipuram is famous for the ancient temples, Kanchi Shankracharya peeth and the Kanchipuram Silk. Our guide took us the the Kanchi Silk shop, devoted lion’s share of tiem for it and skipped the Shankaracharya’s place.)
The Ekamabarnathar (meaning Ekambar Nath’s) temple is devoted to one of the five forms of Lord Shiva – Earth. The other forms and corresponding temples are Sky – Chidambaram near Pondy, Air – Sri Kalahasti near Tirupati, Water-Thiruvanaikkaval in Trichy and Fire – Thiruvanmalai in Thiruvanmalai.
There are 16 temples devoted to Vishnu and Shiva each respectively in Kanchi. The next temple on the itinerary was the Kamakshi Amman Temple. Built in the 14th century by the Cholas, this temple is dedicated to Goddess Kamakshi – the presiding deity of Kanchi. Here, the goddess is worshipped in the form of a Chakra placed in front of the idol. An image of Sankaracharya is also worshipped. Sri Sankaracharya is said to have defeated Buddhist philosophers in debate here. It is one of the three holy places of Shakthi worship in India, the other two being Madurai and Varanasi. The temple has a golden “gopuram” in the centre.
There was a big queue at this temple and in public interest we decided to forego the entry into sanctum sanctorum and came back with a Parikrama around it. But when we fine-tuned our timing like this, rest of the splinter groups took their own time to reassemble.
The next temple was the Varadraja Perumal Temple-a Vishnu temple. The most peculiar thing about this temple is a gold plated Lizard, which has its own legend.
Before this temple, we were taken to a silk emporium where we were shown the loom and the process of making silk cloth. We did some souvenir shopping too, but avoided heavy spending on the allurement of Kanchipuram name.
Thus, the included breakfast was made possible only at about 11.00am at the hotel Tamilnadu in Kanchipuram. After this we headed for Mahabalipuram (kka Mamallapuram).The road from Kanchipuram to Mahablipuram is not a major highway. On reaching Mahabalipuram, we were first taken to the rock installations said to be from the Pandava’s times. We had our snapping time and then were taken away to the shore temple. The shore temple is a temple whose architecture is entirely different from the typical southern Chola – Pallava style. It is located on a plateau on the Mahabalipuram beach. No, we could not go to the beach. We were driven away to the ECR (East Coast Road) where we had to have lunch at about 4.00pm in the TTDC complex resaturant, which had no water in wash basins and just one unisex loo.
You can read more about the Mahabalipuram in the brilliant post of Karthik.
After the lunch we were made to boat in the Muthukadu lake-the lake where buffaloes walk on water. It was dusk and we were supposed to be back to Chennai by 7. By the time we reach VGP, which was also on the itinerary, it was already past seven and a group was not willing to stop by as they had to catch a train in the night. Eventually, we decided in their favour agreeing for the skipping of the VGP Golden beach, which though was brilliantly lit and welcoming. We were at our hotel rooms with tired legs and the serenity of the places visited flashing in front of our weary eyes. One should never go for these rushed up package tours.
Back in the rooms we had to decide on the next days itinerary. The reports from Tirupati were gloomy. Even if we left for Tirupati in the night, chances of our returning in time to catch the next night’s train to Trichy were very thin, which would have affected the rest of the trip. So we apologized to Balaji and decided to go around the city of Chennai next day, before leaving for Trichy in the night by Rockfort express.