A Memorable 10-Day South India Trip on Shoestring Budget
Two States and One Union Territory: A South India Tour That Began with Ignorance but Ended with Enlightenment……
“Nidhi Singh, check out these beautiful pictures of my friend on Facebook” – Asking to me to pay immediate attention, Shikha turned the face of her laptop towards me.
“Wow, gorgeous place, where is it?” – I asked her
“Pondicherry” – She replied
“Pondicherry, nice! South is Beautiful” – I responded
“Nidhi Singh, we should also plan a trip to Pondicherry!” – Shikha excitedly said.
“Ofcourse!” – My answer was prompt as she would have expected.
So, this small conversation is where it all began, although we would have completely forgotten about it if it wasn’t for the Air Asia flight deal that caught my eye a few weeks after our discussion. I told Shikha about cheap Bengaluru to Delhi flight tickets and while I was at it, the best travel plan struck me…
“Sharma, why don’t we add a couple of other destinations to our Pondicherry plan, after all it’s not always that we get to visit South India” – I stated in order to convince her.
And like an efficient ‘Partner in Crime’ she agreed to it. So, without any delays we got our Bengaluru to Delhi flight tickets booked for Sunday, 21st Feb 2016 (FYI, this would be our return ticket, as we are based in Delhi). You would term us as Crazy, I know you would! Because all we had now was a return ticket in hand and a plan to visit Pondicherry. Like you rightnow, we were clueless then, as to where we will head first and what all places would we include in our South India plan. But, like it is said ‘When there’s a will, there is a way’, so, I invested couple of hours reading the map on Google and going through few blogs that seemed relevant. Turned out my labour did not go in vain and I laid out the plan to Sharma,
“We can plan our trip to Chennai and Mahabalipuram along with Pondicherry as they are in close proximity to each other and then we can go to Bengaluru and then to the ancient site of Hampi. This way we would do two states and one union territory in a single tour. And it would atleast take 8-10 days to do this trip, are you ok with it.”
Sharma asked about each destination in our freshly created South India itinerary and I greeted with prompt answers to all her queries. And finally, she was convinced and then on we started dreaming about our first trip to South India.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr., P.S. I Love You
Well Mr. Brown Jr, certainly realized the value of Dreaming and then going behind that dream to achieve it. No better feeling than to attain what you always wanted! AND here we were, all motivated with his thought. Since we booked our return flight tickets 6 months prior to the trip, we had ample of time to get the other train bookings and schedule our visit destination wise. Here are necessary preparations that we made before the trip.
Train Tickets Bookings:
So, we decided to keep train as our favourite means of commuting, since we were travelling back by air, we thought it will be better to save some money by train travelling. Our first online train booking was for Chennai (No, we didn’t book seats in Chennai Express. LOL). Tamil Nadu Express was the name of the train that connected Delhi to Chennai and took on an average 33hrs one side (Yes that would mean spending two nights in a train). The train departs at 10.30PM from New Delhi Railway Station and arrives at Chennai Central Railway Station, which by the way is amongst the architecturally beautiful railway station in India.
The second train booking was done for Bengaluru from Pondicherry. The train was Puducherry-Dadar Express that reached Yeshvanthpur (YPR, one of the railway stations in Bengaluru) in about 9hrs. Train is scheduled at 8.50PM from Pondicherry/Puducherry Railway Station.
The third train was from Bengaluru to Hampi, which we had to schedule for the same day that we were reaching Bengaluru from Pondicherry (Exactly, that means we would sleep in train second day consecutively. Hampi Express that departs from Bangalore Cantonment Railway Station (BNC) at 10.10PM reaches Hampi’s closest railhead Hospete at 7.10AM. The USP of this train is that it halts for only 2 minutes at the station, so you better not be late.
The fourth and final booking for the train was done for Bengaluru from Hospete. We booked in the same train, Hampi Express and for the same day we reached Hampi (Yes, again it would mean that we will spend another night in the train; that will be the third consecutive night).
We decided to travel from Chennai to Mahabalipuram by bus as the distance is only about 55-60kms. Buses to Mahabalipuram are available from different bus stations in Chennai, we chose to take the bus from Broadway Bus Stand as it was closer to where we were statying i.e., near the Chennai Central Railway Station. Similarly, we decided to take a bus for Pondicherry from Mahabalipuram. The distance between the two places in somewhere around 90kms and the buses are available every 10-15mins from Mahabalipuram Bypass.
They always tell you to book hotel before you visit the place BUT let me just defy them all. Sometimes (when you are budget travelling and trying to save every single penny), it is better not to book at all. If it is a tourist place or a big city, you would always get plenty of accommodation options in India. If you are travelling by train, there are a large number of hotels near the Railway Stations. All it takes is hotel hopping in order to check if the rooms offered are up to your expectations and you can crack a deal at quite a low price.
Railway’s Dormitories are also good options if you are seeking for a place to spend a night and ofcourse if you have a train to catch the next day. We realized there worth last year, while we were visiting Khajuraho via Jhansi. The Railway Station at Jhansi had a nice and clean dormitory, where you can book a bed for a sum of Rs 100 per night per person. You can opt for AC or a Non AC Room or can even book a room with a double bed (AC and Non AC) at a price ranging between Rs. 200-400. Now how good can it get right! Anyway coming to booking again, we ditched advance hotel booking scenario except for one place i.e., Bengaluru. We booked Railway Dormitory at just Rs 122 per person (inclusive of tax) as we had a train to catch to Hospete.
Clothings and Accessories(Trust me, this one is important): We were set to leave in second week of February 2016, when the weather would be quite tolerable in South especially in the state of Tamil Nadu. However, you can’t take the Sun for granted. If you want to avoid sun tanning (Especially if you are an Indian), you need to pack full sleeves clothes. Also be cautious of the fabric that you are planning to take, my pick would be Cotton Fabric as it let the air permeate through it and is soft on skin. Even the pleasant month of February, you might sweat a bit and wearing the clothes of wrong fabric can actually add to your misery. So, we packed full-sleeves clothes, hats, don’t carry one of those baseball caps but pack a proper Sun Hat (You will be grateful to me for this tip). Sun block lotion is mandatory, pack scarves, sunglasses and an umbrella if you like; they might prove to be helpful. A lip balm comes in handy and needless to say that you must carry your first aid box and medicines for stomachache, headache and fever, which are of course unlikely to happen but it is better safe than sorry. Oh! One unusual thing that you might like to pack is a mosquito repellent. There were so many mosquitoes in the hotel in Pondicherry that we had to buy a repellent coil.
Ready, Steady, Po!!: So, we were all set now for the trip and take things as they come. We even carried books on Hampi and Mahabalipuram that we bought at Archaeological Survey of India’s book store near Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh. It was going to be a long journey, long enough to go through the books and fill each other’s head with information. With all our determination and what seemed a fixed plan we headed for Chennai and that’s when the reality of Life took over us.
Thirty-Three Hours in Train that Made Us Realize that Chennai is Everything and More We Thought it Was
We boarded Tamil Nadu Express from New Delhi Railway Station. Since, it was already 10.30PM people (mostly Chennaikaran) had decided to hit their berths. Luckily, our compartment was still bustling. We had three South Indian gentlemen (which I believed were natives of Chennai) who were all almost 6ft tall, A Gujarati Businessman who was accompanied by few of his friends. Now, we could here two languages spoken simultaneously, Tamil and Gujarati as the two groups of men discussed whatever they were discussing. We certainly felt in an alien land, all we did to notice the expressions on their faces to make out what they were talking about. Gujarati we could decipher a bit but Tamil… even if we would have sat inside the gentlemen’s brain, we would never be able to guess what they spoke about. Finally, one of the guy made hand gesture asking me to allow him to raise the middle seat up as if I was some dumb & deaf person; adding to the funny situation I also just nodded my head to give my approval. Before we could go to sleep, the Pantry Car attendant visited the compartment to ask about the breakfast preference, the only options available were Bread Omelette and obvious Idli and Vada Sambhar. The South Indian gentlemen started what I thought was a discussion over the breakfast choice and one of them responded to the attendant with the most obvious option, Idli Sambhar. I grinned without having them noticed me. “The land of Idli Sambhar, here we come” – I said to myself and then fell asleep.
At 7AM, the Aroma of Idli Sambhar and the loud Tamil-accent Hindi woke me to my senses. I had secured the middle seat and when I slightly lowered the blanket over my face to look down, I saw the fellow Tamil gentlemen relishing their Idli Sambhar breakfast with some hearty laughs, again a grin crossed my face, in order to avoid it I looked at the other side where the Gujarati gentlemen was relishing his breakfast comprising of Theplas and Gathiya with pickle. “Wow”, I said to myself, two cultures at one place and then again fell asleep. It was 9AM when I woke up again, looked down again and saw people relaxing and reading newspaper after their supposedly scrumptious meal. Sharma was up by then; we both got fresh and decided to have our home-cooked North India breakfast of Aaloo Puri. If we had woken up early, we would be having meal with the other people in the compartment, so then instead of two cultures, we would have displayed diversity of three regions of India.
After the breakfast, we settled down on a side lower berth in the next compartment, we were yet to cross Madhya Pradesh and we decided to read some books that we got. Here was a man who was quite observant of us, we could guess he was a native of Tamil Nadu and he was in Indian Army. He got us talking, he asked us where we from are and where do we study… “Wait a minute, study??!” I exclaimed to myself but answered composedly to him “We all are working and that too for a very long time”. He showed indifference and continued to his another question of why are we visiting Chennai? We felt as if we were suspects of some crime and rightnow sitting in an interrogation room. However, we still answered him, told him that we are on a tour, to which he asked another question: where all in Chennai will you visit? Before we could answer that, in a stern voice he threw another question: do you know anything about Chennai or you just without any proper planning left home to take a tour of it? I was agitated with his insensitive manner of asking questions but with a smile, I gave him few names of the places that we would like to visit, turned out he didn’t know about them, which made me believe that he was not from Chennai but visiting it. His fellow Army man interrupted our not-so-nice-conversation with some helpful suggestions (Thank God!). He told us of few place that we should visit in Chennai, he himself added a few destinations around Chennai for us to visit, which I thought was of no use at that moment. We were happy that the conversation ended because of the interruption and we resumed to our reading.
By lunchtime we were at Nagpur, Maharashtra, we thought of buying some oranges (for which Nagpur is famous) at the station but we already had packed fruits for ourselves. We started feeling little weary by the evening, read just enough, played a game of Ludo and Snakes & Ladder (Board Games) and with cute kids in the compartment, when suddenly someone from the three gentlemen played a Tamil song on his mobile phone, I must tell you the music really pumped us up. The feeling of not understanding a single word but losing yourself to the fine music cannot be compared to anything at all, trust me. Dinner time, finally gave us the opportunity to display the diversity, so there was Sambhar and Rice, Thepla and Gathiya and North India Thali to give each other a good run. As we relished our individual cuisines, I actually felt nice and proud to be able to get this special experience.
Chennai: Lost in Translation but Found by Knowledge
If you ask an average North Indian about South India, the first thing he would say is “Oh Madras” and then he would go on and on about how their cuisine does not include chapatti and how they cook everything in coconut oil and few might go overboard and speak of their colour. On the other side if you tell an average South Indian that you are visiting from North India, his most prompt response would be “From which part of North India?” or “Are you finding South India nice”.
Well, this says pretty everything much about Chennai. We reached the beautiful railway station Chennai Central after our 33 hours journey. The station is probably one of the finest that I have ever seen. After taking couple of pictures, we decided to take a walk towards the nearby hotels and check out hotels for a decent room. It didn’t take us much to find a moderately priced hotel and we quickly checked-in to it. The hotel manager was an average Hindi speaker, whereas his staff understood little to no Hindi.
Here is the best part about being in Tamil Nadu: You cannot speak a complete sentence in English to them, feed them important words and they would help you in the same way. For example, if you want to ask them “Which bus will go to Santhome Church Road?” all you need to say to them is “Bus” “Santhome Church Road” and they would reciprocate in the same way: “201A” “Broadway Bus Stand”. That’s the beauty of it! You get lost in translation but you will always find your way!
Anyway, after struggling a bit with making the Room Service guy understand what all we require. We got ready and left for Chennai Darshan. I had prepared a short list of places that we could cover in a day and the first place was Murugan Idli Shop. While we were again struggling, this time with the auto drivers to make them understand where we wished to go, we were suddenly asked to stand aside. Confused, we looked at each other, we tried to walk again but were yet again stopped by the cops, in seconds or few sirens of the cars started to go off and then we realized some VIP was to cross the road where were standing at. Once the cars passed by us, which were atleast 20 in numbers, Sharma said excitedly “I saw her, Jayalalitha! Amma!”. “Oh so, this is what it was about.” I said. We smiled at each other and then again got back to our struggle of making the auto driver understand where we need to reach. Finally one auto driver understood and agreed to go by the meter and next thing we knew we were on the way and in 5 mins, we were at our destination, Murugan Idli Shop. “Oh Shucks, it was just so close, we could have walked to this place” – I said (Anyway, this happens all the time when we visit a new place). The auto driver was honest and charged us as per the meter.
Murugan Idli Shop: A Restaurant unlike Other in Chennai
Murugan Idli Shop is a must-visit place in Chennai and there is no excuse that you should not get here. They serve in a traditional way: on a Banana Leaf. And their food is to die for and we are not sure if their hospitality is such or they treated us this way but they served us Idli and Dal Vada without evening asking. While we savoured the super soft Idli and extra crunchy Dal Vada with assorted Chutneys, one of them came and finally asked as to what more we want to eat and then without even listening to our demands, he said you should try Podi Dosa and Ghee Dosa, we couldn’t do anything but to nod Yes to the suggestion. These people know what they are selling and one single bite of the two dosas served to us could very well convey that! The filter coffee, also served in the traditional ‘Davara Tumbler’, was a bit strong for us but actually helped us keep active throughout the day. They even offered us their specialty ‘Jigarthanda’, which is a smoothie but we humbly refused as we were full. After thanking them for their unparalleled hospitality, we left for Kapaleeshwar Temple.
By the time we reached Kapaleeshwar Temple, it had already closed; an auto driver informed that it will reopen at 4PM. I looked at the watch, it said it was going to be 2PM; we had ample of time, so I checked the list that I had carried and found that Santhome Church was in close proximity to the temple. So, we headed towards it.
Santhome Church: One of India’s Oldest Churches
The great Venetian traveller Marco Polo who visited here in 1292 wrote about the tomb of St. Thomas, a disciple of Jesus placed here:
“The Christians who go thither in pilgrimage take of the earth from the place where the saint was killed (or buried), and give a portion thereof to anyone who is sick of a quartan or a tertian fever; and by the power of God and of St. Thomas the sick man is incontinently cured.”–Travels of Marco Polo Vol.II by Yule Edited by Cordier.
I’m not sure about the place’s miraculous healing power but I know about the utter peace and the beautiful architecture that this place has. We sat here for some time, visited the attached museum and the tomb of St. Thomas here. Got our bottle also refilled from here which according to one of the friends had the best water taste in the entire tour. While were heading to the church, we saw a direction board indicating the existence of a Lighthouse at a short distance from the Church, since we had ample of time, we decided to walk towards it.
Lighthouse and the Marina Beach:
As we walked for 15-20minutes more, we could see the head of the Lighthouse, we were glad to see it but our happiness was short-lived as a foul smell (smell of fishes) attacked our nostrils. No matter how much Sharma claims it to be an ‘Organic Smell’, I can never cross that place without covering my nose with layers. Turned out we were at one of the ends of Marina Beach. Sharma bought her very first Coconut Water in South India here at this unforgivably stinky place, while I was brisk walking towards the sea so that I can get away from the smell. A short distance from the shore, the place ceased to stink and most of all, the view of blue sea made me forget everything. It was still sunny and the day was hot, I decided not to uncover my face (except when posing for a photo). There were fishermen, who were cleaning and aligning their nets, while little kids in their typical Tamil Nadu traditional dresses were enjoying the water. We soaked our feet in the water, there were times that fishes and crabs came along the tide and brushed against our feet, the feeling was tickly but fun. We spent some time at the Marina Beach, which by the way has the longest beach in India, we observed people, took pictures, saw the horses play in the water and then we headed for Kapaleeshwar Temple. While we were returning, we saw a nice restaurant on Santhome Church Road that served non-vegetarian delicacies. We ordered Chicken Biryani and let me tell you, it was one of the best biryanis I have tasted. The spices were different, they weren’t like the ones used in North India. They smelled different and ofcourse brought out a flavour that I had never had. Just incase, you want to try this Biryani, the restaurant’s name is Best Biryani and it is somewhere close to the Jumma Masjid on Santhome Road.
Built in the 7th century AD, Kapaleeshwar Temple is dedicated to Shiva. The temple is done in the Dravidian style of architecture and is amongst the most gorgeous temples in Chennai. We took off footwears at a huge door of the temple, our feet were covered with sand and I felt ashamed of them. However, once we entered the premises of the temple, I forgot all about them. Infront of our eyes were number of small shrines aligned in a square. We started our circumambulation and realized there were greater temples one after the other. The main temple of Shiva had this long queue for Darshan, which I eventually decided to miss. Sharma on the other hand chose to stand in the queue and see the temple, while I took pictures of it from outside. There were several people performing circumambulation some of them looked really rich (I could guess that by the number of gold accessories they were wearing and the quality of their clothes), as soon as they would reach a temple, they along with their families lay prostrate infront the idol. I could feel the strength of their faith and it really moved me. A loud sound of music interrupted my thought; it was rising from somewhere in my right, so I walked towards it. Classical Dance was being performed at one of the temple’s ‘Mantapa’ (Mandap) and although huge crowd gathered to watch it, there was just enough space for me to be accommodated. I watched the dance, which was actually a mix of Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi Indian dance style. It was a lovely experience, there were little girls who must have been 5-7years old and they danced like PRO. Sharma also managed to see the ending of the performance and then we walked to a place where Prasad was distributed. For Rs. 5 one could opt for sweet or salted Prasad and we opted for a sweet one. The taste was very nice and the texture very supple and light, we started discussing its ingredients, when we noticed a lady looking at us with a sweet smile on her face. When she noticed that we saw her observing us, she said to us in a sweeter voice “Jaggery, Rice and Dal, Prasad.” We smiled at her and told her it’s really delicious to which she responded “Accha Hai, Tasty”. Sharma got really excited, she asked her if she could be speak fluent Hindi, she replied “Thoda Thoda”. We shared laughter and then she left. By now, it was dark but we still had some time to visit a place or two. So, we exited the temple, found our footwears at the door (Thank God, they weren’t stolen, even if they were unattended) and looked for someone who could help us with a suggestion of a place to visit. A street vendor selling children’s toys suggested us to visit Besant Nagar Beach.
We decided to take an auto for Besant Nagar Beach, which according to the Google Map was approximately 9kms from Kapaleeshwar Temple. We asked many auto drivers but none agreed to go by meter and were charging just the double of what it should have been. So after trying in vain for about half an hour we decided to retire to our hotel.
We took an auto to Chennai Central Railway station and before heading to our hotel, we headed out for Murugan Idli again, although we were full, we thought it would be nice to take a walk till the restaurant and try their earlier offered Jigarthanda. It took us atleast 20-25mins to reach Murugan Idli, we sat out on their stairs and offered Jigarthanda, which by the way a fine mixture of Reduced Milk, Badam Pisin (Almond Gum), Nannari Syrup and Icecream. This flavoursome drink was all we could have asked for at the moment. After relishing it we went straight to the hotel and slept like babies. The next day was for Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram: Perfect Reflection of Tamil Nadu’s Beauty in Simplicity
As a traveller I have learned that it’s not the grand things that we cherish but the smaller ones. Mahabalipuram is a place I would like to recommend to all those who find beauty in small things. A coastal town, Mahabalipuram or Mammalapuram as it is called now is a paradise for those seeking nature’s beauty, a place to relax and rejuvenate and the place with a pace of its own.
We left for Mahabalipuram from Chennai in the morning. Boarded the bus from Broadway, to those who wish to travel by public transport, the bus from Chennai to Mahabalipuram is a Green-Colour Bus that has fixed timings. One of the ideal places to catch the bus is Broadway Bus Station, which is at a short distance from Chennai Central Railway Station. You can ask at the enquiry about the schedule of the bus.
Expect the bus to be crowded; if it isn’t a good day for you, you might have to remain standing throughout your journey, which was unlike the case with us. A very polite lady offered us a seat on which her two young daughters were seated. She just gestured through her hand and said few words in Tamil, which we did not understand. We also just gratefully smiled at her. The journey to Mahabalipuram takes about 1-1.5hrs and the bus runs over the famous East Coast Road (ECR), which is indeed scenic. We reached Mahabalipuram bus stand by 11-11.30AM and then with the help of the Google Map made it to Othavadai Street, where we would get possible cheapest hotels in Mahabalipuram. After a brief search of 20-30 mins, we found a humble cottage near the beach, which looked more like a homestay as the entrance of the cottage was from inside the house of the owner. The lady owner was very sweet, she only understood a few words of English (needless to say, Hindi was not her cup of tea) with which she managed to charm us. The room although a very basic one was spic and span; without even a single trace of dust. The sheets were clean and crisp and the room was airy and the washroom spacious and we had to pay only Rs. 500 for it! Was I in Heaven? No, I was in a better place, I was in Mahabalipuram.
After resting and freshening up, the watch in my mobile said it was already 3PM. Since we knew that most of the archaeological sites close by 5-5.30PM, we hurried to grab some lunch and then to our first sightseeing place in Mahabalipuram, Krishna’s Butterball (Krishna’s Laddu). Othavadai Street is arrayed with western style cafés and lounges, which I am sorry to say, are a bit overpriced. We wanted to eat at a budget place and apart from it we wanted to eat some more South Indian food. So taking directions from one of the cafés owner, we landed at Ananda Bhawan. This is a budget restaurant in Mahabalipuram that serves pure vegetarian delights. The attendant at our table understood partial hindi, so we asked him to help us with ordering authentic food. Unfortunately, most of the food had finished and we were left of options of trying Dosas. So, Paneer and Podi Dosa along with Idli Sambhar was our lunch order. We asked the same attendant for the directions to the places that we should see. There were pictures of important monuments in Mahabalipuram places on the walls of the restaurant, so he directed us in this way:
“First, Krishna’s Laddu, two, Arjuna’s Penance, three Panch Rathas, last Shore Temple. Here you go left, straight, left” – he directed us with hand gestures.
We said thank you to him and then went ‘Left, Straight, Left’ and we were there! Krishna’s Laddu.
Krishna’s Butter Ball:
It is a natural rock that steadily stands 20m high and 5m in width on a slope. Like it never moved from there! Actually, this is why this natural rock boulder is a must-see place in Mahabalipuram. We spent some time analyzing its mystery of being so steady but obviously could not come to any conclusion. Took couple of pictures here and then hurried to another structure, which was 100m away and was called the Varaha Cave Temple.
Varaha Cave Temple:
Dating back 7th century AD, Varaha Cave is a rock-cut temple. The most prominent sculpture in this cave temple is that of Lord Vishnu who is believed to be in the incarnated form of a Varaha or Boar lifting Bhudevi, the mother earth goddess from the sea. The temple has other mythical figures carved on its wall. We sipped in some Coconut water near this cave and gathering enough energy to explore another sightseeing place in Mahabalipuram, we headed out to Arjuna’s Penance.
Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of Ganges is another open-air rock structure carved on two monolithic boulders. There are two significant legends: The descent of the Ganges and Arjuna’s Penance portrayed in this stone structure that is a part of Pallava heritage site. We spent decent amount of time observing the sculptures here (as each one was special in their own way) before we moved towards the Shore Temple.
It took us at least 15-20minutes to walk up to Shore Temple and unfortunately by the time we reached; the ticket counter was already closed. So, we had no option but to walk towards the beach, which was another 15-20minutes walk from here.
The way to the beach is arrayed with number of shops selling seafood, artificial jewellery, clothes, stonework and other possible tourist’s eye catchers. The pavement is made of sand thus, it takes a bit of effort to walk to the beach (especially, if you have walked so much before it). We finally made it to the beach, where a large Thiruvalluvar’s (Greatest Tamil Scholar) statue overlooking the sea. The beach of Mahabalipuram is unlike Chennai’s beach and somehow the colour also varied. The beach was crowded; here also we could see Tamil ladies in suits, some in sarees with their Jasmine and Rose flower’s Gajras enjoying dips in the shallow water. It was quite a lively place to be at; variety of people to look at, there was a group of men from Gujarat, who went deep in the water with their sunglasses on, then there were this couple who thought we were Tamil and tried conversing with us but then realized we understand a thing, so decided to walk away. There was this young Tamil boy who was practicing acrobats in the water and then there were people who were just looking at other people (Like us. LOL). We enjoyed dipping our sore feet in the water; it was warm and it did miracles for our tired feet. We stayed at the beach till it got dark and then headed towards the cottage but before that stopped to have dinner.
After dinner, we walked through the Othavadai Street met couple of friendly foreigners. Two of them (happened to be mother and son) were so fluent in Hindi that we were shocked. They told us that they were on tourist visa for four years and have been putting up in Darjeeling. Our brief chat made us really exciting as to how much the language has an effect on us. The moment the young boy spoke to us in Hindi, we felt a sense of belongingness; we experienced a deeper connection despite our different races and countries. Mahabalipuram, especially the Othavadai Street looks lovely in the evening. You would find almost every café replete with foreign tourists, you would hear gentle laughter from everywhere and the colorful lights and shops around add to the charm. We sat for some time outside the cottage from where the sea was visible. The breeze was cold now, the night was becoming beautiful, and we could hear the sound of the waves which was getting ferocious. We finally retired to our hotel and after agreeing on Mahabalipuram being the best places we have seen so far, we soon fell asleep.
Next morning we visited the same restaurant for breakfast and on the suggestion of the same attendant tried Pongal, which was delicious. Pongal is a dish made with rice and it is served with Sambhar, Coconut and Onion’s Chutney. The attendant asked about the places we visited yesterday and he was glad that we liked them all. We told him, we are visiting Shore Temple and Panch Rathas today to which he just smiled and said “Ok”. We first went to the shore temple which takes about 30mis of walk to reach, we also crossed many stonework selling shops that had huge stone structures on display. To Mahabalipuram, the art of stone sculpting has been given as a heritage by the Pallavas Rulers, who reigned here from 3rd to 9th century AD.
One of the Seven Pagodas in Mahabalipuram, the Shore Temple is indeed the major tourist attraction in Mahabalipuram. Built with blocks of granite, it is an 8th century AD temple and is one of the oldest stone structures in Tamil Nadu. The Tsunami of December 2004 that struck the Mahabalipuram as well exposed an old collapsed temple built of granite blocks. This has renewed assumptions that Shore Temple was indeed a part of the Seven Pagodas described in the diaries of Europeans, of which six temples remain submerged in the sea. The Tsunami also exposed a few ancient rock sculptures of lions, elephants, and peacocks that must have adorned the walls and temples during the Pallava period during the 7th and 8th centuries AD. It is a complex of three-temples, one smaller than the other and has a large Vishnu statue in the reclining position, Durga on Lion and Shiva and Parvathi deities as its special features. After spending some time here, we headed to Panch Rathas, which should have supposedly concluded our tour in Mahabalipuram.
The scorching sun and our tired feet were giving up on us but it was the only day that we had in Mahabalipuram. So, we gathered strength and with efforts made it to the Panch Rathas. Dating back to 7th century, the Panch Rathas or Five Chariots is an example of monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture. Each of the monuments in the complex resembles a chariot and they are named after the Pancha Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi from the epic Mahabharata. In order of their size, they include the Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, and Draupadi Ratha.
After spending some time there, we decided to leave for the hotel as we had a bus to catch for Pondicherry. As we left the premises of Panch Rathas, we saw sign indicating towards the left to visit Indian Sea Shell Museum, we were already running late but we thought of giving this place a quick look.
Indian Sea Shells Museum:
One of the newest attractions of Mahabalipuram, Sea Shell Museum is one of its kind in India. It is a repository of different kinds of shells there is a collection of 50k specimens of rare and unique shells. Along with the museum, the complex has a boutique, aquarium of ocean and river fishes and a restaurant that serves sumptuous sea-food. The boutique, Maya Bazaar sells elegant pearl jewellery and other beautiful artifacts made from seashells that are good affordable prices. We found a few things quite attractive and decided to shop a bit for our friends and family. Sharma hand-picked variety of seashells for her 8years old nephew, she told me that this will be the first time that he would be introduced to these (Well, let me tell you her nephew was not quite happy with the introduction of seashells to him. LOL).
So, after buying a number of items from the Maya Boutique, we finally headed to our hotel. We were an hour late for the check out and the cottage owner was little upset with it. She demanded extra money (A small amount) and we had no choice but to pay her. We checked out from the cottage, handed over the money to the owner and saw she had no expressions on her face and as soon as she took money in her hand she vanished somewhere inside her house, we started to walk out when she suddenly reappeared and handed us her visiting card. “Next Time Mahabalipuram, Call Me”, she said smiling. We smiled back, she again said “Auto Waiting, Out” to which we looked outside the gate and saw an auto waiting for us. Wow she had arranged an auto for us without even asking, that was nice. We thanked her and then walked towards the auto.
We got down at the Bypass of Mahabalipuram, from where regular buses ply to Pondicherry. After waiting for a bus for 5-7minutes we saw a fast paced bus approaching towards us, Sharma leaving her bag with me went to the conductor to confirm if the bus was going to Pondicherry. The conductor gave a nod and said something in Tamil, which ofcourse we didn’t understand but somehow it felt that he asked us to hop on quickly. Shikha ran back for the bag and then we got on the bus where we could here loud music (ofcourse Tamil Music). We quickly sat as the driver was a bit rash with the driving. We paid Rs. 70 for Pondicherry and relished our journey again on the East Coast Road. It was comparatively more scenic this time around. In about 2hours we were in Pondicherry and it looked like just another regular city of India.
Pondicherry: Where Things Have Their Own Pace
I was a bit disappointed with the way Pondicherry looked, I had imagined it to be a quiet and scenic place but it turned to just another developing city in India. However, we got down at the bus stand; the conductor helped us with the luggage. How sweet I thought but then Sharma prompted I guess he was agitated with slow pace and decided to get us out of the bus ASAP, we both laughed at this quite apt thought. We cracked a deal with an auto driver that he would help us with finding a budget hotel near the beach.
He took us to White Town (Yes, this looked like the Pondicherry I had imagined). White Town is the French style avenue and many of the building have now converted into hotels and restaurant here. So, the auto driver found us a decent hotel to stay at and we were happy. We checked in to the hotel and then realized it would soon be dark outside. So we planned to visit only the nearby beach today.
A short walk from our hotel led us to Rock Beach, which resembled the Marine Drive of Mumbai. It was already dark and we weren’t able to see the colour of the sea. It was quite breezy and there were lot of people there. By the sound of the waves crashing over the boulders, we could make out that this sea was a furious one. We sat facing the sea, enjoyed the breeze and then decided to have dinner.
We approached a person who looked like a local and asked him where we can have the budget food as we don’t wish to spend money on a fancy restaurant in French Avenue. He asked us to visit Lal Bahadur Shastri Marg, where the locals ate.
It took us some 20-30mins to reach Lal Bahadur Shastri Marg, we found a decent place to eat and we savoured some nice South Indian food again. I wanted to have coffee but they said it is not served during the dinner hours. I was a bit disappointed but the food was nice so I tried to concentrate on it rather. After the food, we retired to our hotel, which we noticed had a roof restaurant and bar. We looked at each other and we both knew that we wanted to check the place out. It was a decent rooftop restaurant, which would remain open till 11PM according to the receptionist. I looked at my phone, which told me it was already 10.15PM. We hurriedly went upstairs and saw very few people sitting there; we saved us a seat at a corner, where we sat till 11PM enjoying the cool breeze and a plate of chicken and prawns chilli. We came to room and after deciding that we would leave early morning for Auroville, we decided to call it a day.
Like we planned, we left for Auroville, which was 14kms from White Town early in the morning. With our conversation with receptionist we came to know that we could take a bus to Auroville as it will cost us very less. Taking direction instruction for the bus stand from the receptionist we headed out but then we felt hunger pangs. So we changed the plan a bit and instead of going straight to the bus stand we walked to Lal Bahadur Shastri Road again. We savoured a good breakfast there with frothy filter coffee that I saw for the first time. It was as good as it could get.
After the breakfast we walked towards the bus stand but somehow lost our way. We kept walking for 15-20mins and arrived at a place (which we realized was some government office) where two men were chatting on the streets. We interrupted their conversation and asked for the bus to Pondicherry. One of them said something in Tamil and then confirmed with us if we understood Tamil, when we said ‘NO Tamil’, the two men started to discuss bus route amongst each other (In Tamil ofcourse) but with their gestures we could make out that weren’t sure of the route, few people from the government office joined their discussion and then in some more time couple of other people joined in and in say 6-7mins or even less, there were 10-12 men discussing the route, we were so amused but kept quiet. After good 10mins of discussion, the final decision was made, one of the men said “Bus Kannada Chettikulam, Left Corner”, pointing to a road turn towards our left. We thanked them and headed for the road turn when we saw a bus approaching towards us, in order to confirm if this was the bus they were talking about we turned towards them and from a distance we all of them simultaneously waving their hands in the “NO” gesture, it was really funny, we laughed amongst ourselves and then gave them a nod that we understood that we need not take this bus. Once we reached the left corner we were directed to, we again turned to check to see if the people were still standing and as soon as we turned (as expected) they were there smiling and showing us the ‘Thumbs Up’ hand gesture. We smiled at them; it was way too sweet of them.
We boarded the bus after confirming with the conductor, it was a packed bus, so we had to remain standing but it was ok. We thought of asking the conductor to inform her when we arrive at Auroville but the bus was so full that apart from asking him to give us the ticket we were unable to communicate with him. A man sitting nearer to where we were standing overheard us and said he would let us know when we are at Auroville.
With the guidance of the man, we got down at a place, which looked like a part of a highway, there were fewer shops and the roadside tea shops and a few auto standing. We enquired one of the ladies at a shop about Auroville, to which she said it is 8kms from where we were standing and one has to take an auto to reach there. We looked around to find an auto and there were certainly autos there but no drivers. We waited for some time, it was a hot day in Pondicherry and there was no shade under which we could peacefully stand (Thank God we had our hats). We saw an aged foreigner there and enquired about the autos, he said it is difficult to find them here. He went out on our behalf to find one for us but came empty handed. We spoke with him while we waited for single auto to come our way. Meanwhile, he told us that he was from Germany and have been living in Pondicherry was 40years. “What would have encouraged this man to leave his country and settle in another country?”, I asked myself. As I was in my thought, a man on his bike stopped to speak to the foreigner, the man told him about us. He offered to help and gave us the cab service number but to our bad luck, the cab wasn’t available. Then he offered saying he can carry one person at a time on his bike to Auroville but that would have been too much of a task for him, so we refused but thanked him for his help. We then checked for an Ola Cab online and fortunately got one booked. We thanked the aged foreigner who was standing with us till the cab came and we were finally on our way to Auroville.
Upon reaching Auroville, which was a quiet place, we were asked to go to the Visitors’ Centre where a short video will be shown to us before we made it to the Matri Mandir. The video had content related to Auroville and its history, there was information about the Matri Mandir and how it was the place for those looking for life’s real meaning and purpose. After the video we were asked to collect our free pass to Matri Mandir and then to walk about a kilometer through a shady path leading to the temple. Since, we hadn’t booked earlier; we were not allowed to enter the Matri Mandir, so all we could do was to take picture from an assigned view point. It is an incredible place and a must-visit for everyone who visits India. The entire path has these stone tablets on which life-related quotes are written. We were enamoured by the place and with the promise to ourselves of pre-booking for Auroville next time around we exited the place. Oh, yes there is a small museum near the Visitor’s Centre, where one can see the model of the interior Matri Mandir and other related information. We had requested the Ola Cab to wait for us, thus we hurriedly walked towards it and asked him to drop us the place where we took the cab from.
The bus that we took from Auroville dropped us at a wrong location, so again, we were lost in Pondicherry. With the help of locals, we were able to get our way back. However, while we were lost we were able to find a nice place to eat, which again was called Ananda Bhavan, we asked the owner if it was the chain of restaurants in South India as we encountered another Ananda Bhavan in Mahabalipuram as well, to which the owner said that the restaurant had no chain and this particular restaurant in Pondicherry was 50 years old and had been started by his grandfather. The food was delicious as expected and the hospitality was worth praising as well. We even visited a church called Immaculate Conception Cathedral, which had these big beautiful blue doors.
We finally found our way back and then reached Aurobindo Ashram, where the tomb of Aurobindo Ghosh has been kept. Then we visited the French War Memorial and Eglise De Notre Dame Des Anges Church, which are situated opposite the Rock Beach. We saw Ambedkar Manimandabam and the Gandhi Statue and finally sat on the beach for a while. Our train to Bengaluru was scheduled at about 9PM from Pondicherry and it was 6PM. After spending time on the beach, we walked back to our hotel, rested there for some time and then headed for the railway station, which is about 500m from White Town (we paid way too much to the auto rickshaw, you please don’t make the mistake). Pondicherry has a small railway station with minimum food vendors, so have your meal somewhere else before you come here to catch the train. Our train was right on-time and after walking so much throughout the day, we decided to call it a day early. We reached Bengaluru’s Yeshwanthpur Railway Station at 5.30AM.
We had pre- booked dormitory in Bengaluru but the timing for it is between 8AM and 8PM. So, we had to wait at the station and to make this time useful we has some refreshing coffee. At 8PM, we went to the counter to get to our beds in dormitory but there was no one yet. We again had to wait till 9AM to get the formalities done. The dormitory was clean and nice, since we woke up early in the morning and yesterday’s hectic day was fresh in our mind, we decided to give our body some rest. It was by 1PM that we were all set to explore Bengaluru but before that ofcourse we wanted to eat something.
So we walked to the same place where we had coffee in the morning and ordered Lemon Rice, Besi Bele Bhaat (rice-lentil-vegetable dish from the Karnataka cuisine) and ofcourse coffee and all this only costed us Rs. 110. After savouring this dish, we headed out for Lalbagh Botanical Garden.
Lalbagh Botanical Garden:
Commissioned by Hyder Ali in 1760, Lalbagh Botanical Garden is the biggest tourist attraction of Bengaluru. The garden is spread in an area of 240 acres and has about 1000 species of plants and trees. The Lalbagh Botanical Garden Glass House is one of the major highlights of the place is modeled as London’s Crystal Palace. We weren’t able to see the entire garden due to time’s constraint and then headed out Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, which is at a distance of about a kilometer or two from here. En route we saw the famed Vidhan Souda as well.
Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace:
It is a humble structure mostly built by teak wood. Constructed in an Indo-Islamic style of architecture, the palace has a vintage gallery and there is a replica of Tipu’s Tiger, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The palace is open to public daily from 10am to 6pm and from 8.30am to 5.30pm on Sundays, and there is an entry fee of Rs. 5 per person for Indians and Rs.100 per person for foreigners. After spending some time here, we headed out for another popular place in Bengaluru, MG Road, which about 5 to 6kms from Tipu Sultan’s Palace.
Since, we had a train to catch for Hospete the same night, we thought of reaching early to the station and take some rest before we board the train from Bangalore Cantonment Railway Station. So we spent very less time at MG Road and took an auto back to Yeshwanthpur Railway Station.
Bangalore Cantonment Railway Station is also a small station but unlike Pondicherry’s station, it had a few eating options. The train to Hospete was a delayed by 10mins, however when it arrived we realized its halt duration is only two minutes (thankfully, we were standing exactly at the place where our coach was supposed to be placed. There were many young people in our compartment; we assumed that they were also visiting Hampi on a weekend trip. Turned out, most of them got down at a small station called Torangallu instead. “We must research about Torangallu when we are back in Delhi”, I said to Sharma as she was disappointed that all these good-looking people were not got going to Hampi.LOL.
Hampi is somewhere around 14 – 16kms from Hospete, which is the nearest railway junction. There are number of hotels within 1km distance of the Hospete Railway Station that you can book a room at. As for us, we were scheduled to leave for Bengaluru the same night, so we took a room for an hour to freshen up and leaving our bags on the reception we headed to Hampi.
The bus stand was at a walking distance as well, say about a kilometer or less from where were rightnow. There are government buses that ply to and from Hampi every half an hour so. The route is full of rustic charm and you can very well estimate how the place is going to be even before you reach there.
Hampi is famous for its ancient ruins mostly dating back to the Vijaynagara Kingdom. However, there have been scripts found that relates Hampi to the Ashokan Empire dating back to 3rd century BC. At a distance of about 300-400m from where the bus stops in Hampi is the Virupaksha Temple, which is one of the well-kept structures in Hampi. A tall spire is adorned with sculptures of different Hindu Gods and surprisingly with erotic sculptures resembling the ones in Khajuraho. The temple is huge and is blessed with some really notorious long-tailed monkeys (no, not the langurs) who snatch away edibles from one’s hand. The River Tungabhadra is also situated close to this structure.
The day was hot; the scorching sun did not show any mercy upon us. It was obvious we wouldn’t be able to see the entire place that is spread in an area of 25sq.km. So we, picked few spots to see that were nearer to Virupaksha Temple like Hemkuta Hills, Monolithic Bull, Matunga Hill and Veerbhadra Temple, Krishna Temple, Vittala Temple and Achyutraya Temple. All the stone structures are unique and are built with distinct skills. The massive deities of Nandi and Ganesha and the physics of the boulder staying stable on slopes astonished us so many times in Hampi. We even spent time near the river, the quiet water of River Tungabhadra certainly add charm to this place. On the ghats, you would find several foreigners taking bath. There are also Coracles (the round boats) and ferries that transport people from corner to the other. We realized that there were yoga camps here as well. We had lunch at one of the cafés in the Hampi Bazaar, which is arrayed with big and small cafés open by the villagers who have become really fluent in English Language. The café we had lunch over was run by a duo of father and daughter and was moderately priced (except for the Lassi that was not worth exorbitant amount of money we paid).
It was by 6PM, we left from Hampi to Hospete. On reaching Hospete, we had dinner at one of the restaurants near the bus stand. We then walked to the hotel, picked our luggage and left for the railway station. The train was again a bit delayed; standing with us at the platform was this foreigner who we assumed was travelling alone. We offered her a seat with us and she modestly refused however on our insistence she sat with us. We got talking with her and then came to know that she was from Portugal and she has been travelling to India for several years now. She was headed to Rishikesh and before that she was staying in Amma’s Asharam in Kerala. There were so many we discussed with her. Two of the important things she told were that she learnt English only when she came to India and that foreigners are charged exorbitant amount for basic services like rail tickets bookings in India. But she still enjoyed coming to India and follow the path of ‘Ahimsa’ that she learnt during her stay here. The train was here and bidding her good-bye we got into our coach. We discussed the Portuguese lady for some time and decided to sleep.We would reach Bengaluru early morning.
The last time we were here someone told us about Bannerghatta Biological Park that is a must-see in Bengaluru. So, we decided that we would only spend time exploring this place. We booked a room in Majestic area of Bengaluru and then after freshening up, we set out Bannerghatta. There are regular buses from Majestic Bus Station for Bannerghatta, both AC and NON AC buses are available and it takes about 1.5 to 2hrs to reach the park, where safaris are available. We opted for Wildlife Safari and Zoo combo. The wildlife safari is quite exciting, we were in a canter that passed through different zones where animals like White Tiger, Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Lions and Bears can be sighted basking in the sun in the natural settings. The feeling is entirely different from watching these animals in the caged structures. It’s more like an adventure! We had a great time at the safari as well as in the zoo. The Hornbill and the Bengal Tigers were the highlights of the zoo.
It was already 6PM, when we reached back to Majestic. We had some food at a restaurant near Majestic Bus Station and then headed to our hotel, where we took a nap for few hours. We woke up by 9.30 and decided to get some food packed (we didn’t want to spend unnecessary money at the airport) to have before and during our early morning flight from Bengaluru to Delhi. We happened to cross a sweets shop and decided to take some Mysore Pak home. The shop keeper before packing our order made us taste Mysore Pak, and let me just tell you a small piece of it made our eyes grow bigger with its heavenly taste. Where we were getting only one kg each we bought 2kgs each. That actually gave a nice end to our day in Bengaluru. We walked back to our hotel and after packing everything carefully and discussing our fabulous trip of South India we fell asleep…
So, our very first South India trip was accomplished successfully and now its memories will remain forever etched in our hearts. It was a special trip as it made us see a different India, we heard two different languages and diverse English accents but above all what we realized is the fact no language is required when you really want to communicate, it’s the willingness that matters. We also realized that not every man in India is a lecher, throughout the trip not even a single man looked at us with a dirty eye. And most important lesson we learnt is that India is what it is called A Country with Unity in Diversity. Although, we realize that this trip was merely our introduction to South India and there is still more that we need to see before we give a judgments but like it’s said ‘First Impression is the Last Impression’, so be it.