On the Vanthiyathevan trail – I

There are vacations. And there are vacations. The first kind are those you plan, you book yourself into a nice resort or hotel, you take a train or a flight and you go. The destination is clear. And so is the plan. And then there are other vacations. You have no idea where you want to go. You’re not sure of what you’ll find where you go. You’re not even sure whether you’ll find anything at all when you get there. And these vacations are the most memorable ones you’ll ever take.

I first read Ponniyin Selvan when I was 17. Caught in the limbo between school and college, barely able to read more than two sentences in Tamil, I picked up the book, encouraged by my grandmother first and my father later. Forty-six pages into the book, I was hooked. Never have I been so enamoured by a novel that I have read it time and again, four times at last count and the fifth in progress. After my third reading in five years I decided I wanted to go to all those places mentioned in the book. Irrespective of its historical accuracy, and inspite of myself, I fell in love. In love with Chola history. In love with the brave Vanthiyathevan and the handsome Arulmozhi. Has I been born during those times, I would probably have wanted to marry one of these men.

This love affair with the Cholas continues. Almost two decades have gone past and I’m still enamoured by the men who built such pieces of art as the Thanjavur temple. This dream of visiting the places on the Vanthiyathevan tail is not a new one, nor is it a solitary one. It is a decade-old dream, shared with Sriram. A dream that we’ve spent a decade discussing and refining. A dream that we’ve spent years trying to make a reality. Somewhere in-between, life happened and the dream didn’t quite materialise. Until this year. When we heard of the Kollidam being full and flowing into the sea after many years, we arrived at an unspoken agreement that we would do it this year. Come what may.

We would have wanted to start our trip on the iconic Adi Thirunaal festival, just like the novel does. But bad planning at our end meant that we could leave only a week later. Not that it mattered. The journey was beautiful nonetheless. We set off from Chennai one bright Friday morning. Our timing was good because the sun was merciful almost through our six-day trip, never getting too hot to handle. After breakfast in Pondicherry, we headed out to Cuddalore, the first of our six-day, multi-city road trip. The Vanthiyathevan trail would have to wait until the next day, when we were done with the minor detour that we were planning to take in Cuddalore.

Day 1 – Stop 1 – Thirupathiripuliyur, Padaleeswara-Periya Nayaki temple

Almost inside Cuddalore town, the Padaleeswara temple at Thirupathiripuliyur dates back to the medieval Cholas (Parantaka I) or even earlier to the later Pallavas. There wasn’t much we could photograph inside the temple because it is maintained and run by the HR&CE and photography banned in most places within the precincts of the temple. We went here because it was on the way and it made sense to visit the temple given its antiquity and importance.

Day 1 – Stop 2 – Devanampattinam, St. David Fort

St. David Fort was the centre of British possessions on the Coromandel Coast until the end of Second Carnatic War, when the French destroyed the fort in a bid to seal their victory against the British. This fort is almost on the sea shore and is currently in ruins. There’s not much that remains of the fort today, except a two-storey building that resembles a house more than a fortress. The building was open when we arrived and a bunch of people sitting there invited us to feel free to explore it. One of the guys there lamented that nobody was even visiting the place, leave alone maintain it, except for a few foreigners who seemed to like visiting old, abandoned ruins. A closer observation shows remains of the rampart walls and a tunnel that probably led out into the sea. I wish we had some access to someone who could tell us more about the fort itself and about whether there is any effort being done at conservation at all.

We also planned to visit Porto Novo or Parangipettai where some remains of old Portuguese buildings dating back to the 18th Century are still around. We learnt that these buildings are now government offices and inaccessible to the public. What’s the point in going if you can’t see anything anyway? So, the Porto Novo plan was dropped and we went ahead to Chidambaram that was to be our stopover on Day 1.

We decided to visit the temple only the next morning as Sriram anyway had work in the city then. We were both exhausted and decided to take a quick nap before deciding what to do in the evening. We learnt from the hotel owner that the Veeranam lake was less than ten minutes away.

Day 1 – Stop 3 – Kattumannarkoil, Veeranarayana Eri

Originally known as the Veeranarayana Eri, the name progressively changed to what we know today as the Veeranam lake. This lake supplies fresh water to much of South Chennai via aqueducts that were constructed in the recent past. The lake however, resembles more a natural waterbody than a manmade one. Constructed by the Prince Rajaditya during the reign of Parantaka II, this extends over about 15 square kilometres and supplies water via 74 aqueducts dating back to over 1000 years ago. Each aqueduct is controlled by a shutter mechanism to control the flow of water from the lake. This lake is supplied by the Vadavaaru river, which is a distributary of the Kollidam. The view of the lake brimming over with water was a joy to behold. We could actually hear the sounds of the waves hitting the lake bund, much like the waves on the shores of the Marina.

Day 1 – Stop 4 – Kattumannarkoil, Vadavaaru River

We knew that the Veeranam lake is watered by the Vadavaaru river. We also knew that the Vadavaaru river plays a significant role in the plot of Ponniyin Selvan. So, how could we skip seeing this river? So, we drove about 17 kilometres, past the Kattumannarkoil town to the banks of the Vadavaaru. It was again brimming over. Perhaps this is why we needed to wait so long to realise our dream? To see the rivers full of water?

When we returned to the hotel that evening, little did we know that the Vadavaaru would accompany us much farther than we thought she would. But that’s another story for another day.

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