We give the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary a miss and push on in search of a fort built like a tiered cake.
Tribute to a visionaryIf there is a soundtrack for the road to Rameshwaram it would be the deep drone of the oboe.
We are parked a few kilometres beyond the town of Cuddalore where the Gadilam empties itself into the sea.
In the early 1600s, the Danes, with the permission of the Maharaja of Tanjore built a fort for their spice trade.
The plan is to pass up the four-lane highways — linking Tiruchi-Madurai-Salem-Coimbatore — that would’ve got us to anywhere in Tamil Nadu in a couple of hours, and instead follow the lonelier, two-lane East Coast Road (ECR) that threads along the Bay, rising and falling among the tussock-topped sand dunes alongside it.
It’s so quiet you can hear the rasp of the waves as the Bay of Bengal bludgeons the coastline. We are parked a few kilometres beyond the town of Cuddalore where the Gadilam empties itself into the sea. It’s late afternoon and there’s still a hundred kilometres to Fort Dansborg. The plan is to pass up the four-lane highways — linking Tiruchi-Madurai-Salem-Coimbatore — that would’ve got us to anywhere in Tamil Nadu in a couple of hours, and instead follow the lonelier, two-lane East Coast Road (ECR) that threads along the Bay, rising and falling among the tussock-topped sand dunes alongside it. Bookended by Chennai and Kanyakumari, the ECR is synonymous with the high life in the State capital, its residences, cafes and hotels, patronised by the swish set. Past the clogged-with-traffic neighbourhood of Thiruvanmiyur, the road breathes easy at Muttukadu and runs itself into the Pallava port of Mamallapuram, a heritage town where ocean breeze and rollers conspire to make it a surfing haven.
The former French settlement of Puducherry, with its tree-lined boulevards, bohemian ethos and air of nostalgia is as far as most people from Chennai travel on the ECR for pleasure. The port cities to the South of it are left to be discovered largely by the intrepid traveller, the odd-biker group and the devotee heading to the churches, temples and dargahs that crowd this coast. Beyond Cuddalore’s haunting Fort St David, a crumbling 17th Century monument that built British colonist Robert Clive’s career, and Silver Beach where I spent many a toddler evening, is a deserted ribbon of perfection that offers epic views.
Song of the sea
The long-drawn out twilight of the East is upon us but we are still in search of the Danish outpost of Tranquebar, now Tharangambadi. Google Maps suggests we head inland to the temple town of Thirukadaiyur and then out to the coast, but we stick adamantly to the ECR that runs past paddy fields and mangroves and is chock-a-block with pilgrims clothed in green. The pilgrim’s progress is marked — there’s a litter of paper cups and plastic bags float on the wind. It seems the perfect time to drive through Tranquebar’s gateway with its coat of arms. Tharangamabadi (place of the singing waves) was a prosperous trading town under the Cholas. In the early 1600s, the Danes, with the permission of the Maharaja of Tanjore built a fort for their spice trade. By 1845, they transferred the colony to the British but their cultural contribution is still remembered. A statue of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg lords over King’s Street that has centuries-old churches. A pioneering Protestant missionary, he set up the Tranquebar Mission and translated and printed the first Bible in Tamil. Children on a school excursion play in the square outside Dansborg Fort, perched on a rocky plinth on the beach. Dansborg, the second largest Danish fort after Kronberg where Hamlet is set, is as pink as the evening sky. Across it stand the museum, restored colonial houses, the tsunami-ravaged Masilamaninathar temple and the Governor’s bungalow, now a hotel. Tharangambadi is where one should stop to hear the song of the sea but there’s time only for hot tea as we push on through Karaikal and Nagapattinam to stay the night at Velankanni.
A solemn witness to all
Comfortable hotels now dot the pilgrim town of Velankanni, famed for its Portuguese-era church. We give the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary a miss and push on in search of a fort built like a tiered cake. It shows up briefly on Google Maps; we have clearly bypassed it. I lower the window to ask a man in a skull cap for directions. There is the uplifting aroma of biryani from the restaurant across and the sharp scent of salt and sea. We head back a couple of kilometres and find the Maratha-built fort. Speakers blare devotional music from the temple nearby. But, Manora Fort at Sarabendrarajanpattinam stands like a silent sentinel looking out to sea. Built by Serfoji II, to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the triumph of the British over Bonaparte, the fort derives its name from the word minar. It towers over a grove of coconut trees from where peacocks call. Its moat is deep and green and a few visitors weave in and out of its clean dungeons. The hexagonal fort has eight storeys but the steps are too hot to negotiate in the searing sun. A little away, the bay sparkles like a thousand diamonds.
Tribute to a visionary
If there is a soundtrack for the road to Rameshwaram it would be the deep drone of the oboe. We turn off the car’s air-conditioner and listen to the wind symphony through the ancient port of Thondi, and Devipattinam, famed for mosques and temples. By the time we arrive at the island traversing 500 kilometres, I have shared the rare privy on this stretch with a horned toad, eaten biryani and fresh fried fish on a banana leaf and crossed many backwaters on the road to Mandapam — land’s end. Mandapam Camp, with its imposing Kelaniya Bungalow, is from where Indian Tamils were sent to work on colonial-era tea plantations in Ceylon, and also where Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrived in boats. The magnificent Pamban bridge connecting Mandapam to Rameshwaram offers stunning views — of eddying pools of water in both the Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar that flank it, boats that bob in the sun and coral islands that stretch all the way to Sri Lanka.
The recently-inaugurated APJ Abdul Kalam National Memorial, Rameshwaram at the quaintly named Pei Karumbu has elements of India Gate and Rashtrapathi Bhavan, paintings of Kalam by artist AP Shreethar, Kalam’s degrees, memorabilia, replicas of the missiles he designed and his tomb. We decide to watch sunrise at Arichalmunai, the last point in the ghost town of Dhanushkodi. The road runs between the rough Gulf of Mannar and the placid Palk Strait. I see crows and catamarans but not a car for miles around. The ruins of Dhanushkodi offer a theatrical denouement and the few fishermen at Mukundarayar Chathiram sell baubles. India’s end is marked by the Lion Capital of Ashoka framed against the confluence of the seas. The sky turns pale, the night fading to a memory. There is no sound except that of the wind and water. This odyssey has brought me to a boundless space, in the middle of nowhere, and yet I feel alive.
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