South India has always fascinated me with its rich culture, which has historically made it a target for the kingdoms from the North; be it Alauddin Khilji or the Tuglaqs and later on Aurangzeb. The sheer resilience with which the South has revived itself from each of these repeated attacks by marauding armies is amazing.
I had read multiple stories and articles about the magnanimous temples and the forts created by various dynasties, which ruled over the vast peninsula be it the Vijaynagar empire, Chalukyas, Pallavas, Pandayas, Cholas, Kakatiyas, and Hoysalas etc. Visiting these awe-inspiring places has been one of my dreams ever since I started out on my own.
I could spare two weeks in September 2017, when I did a bike trip through Karnataka and could experience the great works of Chalukyas (Badami, Aihole, and Pattadakal), Vijaynagar Empire (Hampi) and Hoysalas (Belur, Halebeedu). The experience of the Karnataka bike trip was amazing. In this trip, I got to learn about the kings, their dynasties, and their architecture and I could appreciate the efforts involved to create the monuments. The amazing work on the rock-cut caves of Badami, sandstone temples of Aihole & Pattadakal, grand granite temples of Hampi and the most beautiful of them all; the soapstone star-shaped temples of Hoysalas at Belur and Halebeedu where the intricate work on the stone proved beyond the imagination.
I was waiting for the last few months to complete the southern circuit where Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu were consistently in my thoughts. Finally, after 6 months, in March 2018, all the stars aligned and I could spare a month for this much-awaited bike ride.
The plan was to start from our home in Noida and then ride on Saarthi (my bike) through Uttar Pradesh (Agra, Jhansi), Madhya Pradesh (Gwalior, Lalitpur, Sagar, Chhindwara), and Maharashtra (Nagpur) to reach Telangana (Hyderabad). Thereafter, spend a sufficient amount of time riding across Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu to explore all the historical sites to understand more about their ancient kingdoms and their contribution to our rich cultural heritage.
Noida – Gwalior – Jhansi – Nagpur – Hyderabad (Day 1, 2, 3, and 4)
On March 13, 2018, I woke up at leisure and packed at a comforting pace. I did not feel like hurrying as I was looking forward to a short day of riding today, which would serve as a warm-up ride for the long journey of thousands of kilometers lying ahead, across the length of our country.
Within moments of being on the road, I hit Noida-Greater Noida Expressway, which is a rider’s delight. The cars plying continuously above 100kmph were tempting me to pull the accelerator. However, I started slowly at the start of the trip and allowed the reality of the commencement of a dream ride sink in before I tested the man & the machine to the full rigor. I saw myself consistently & comfortably cruising at 70-75 kmph.
Soon, I reached the Yamuna Expressway, which is one of the landmark assets of the country, which has led the riders to break multiple speed records. Once, I was told that Narain Karthikeyan drove a car at exceeding 300 kmph on this road.
However, it took me a ride of 100 km on this highway to touch 100 kmph on my bike (a Bajaj Dominar, which I am told that it can cruise at speeds of 160 kmph. I am yet to test its limits). Though such speed bursts were rare, the entire day was spent in acclimatizing the man & the machine for the riding mode and the challenges that lied ahead.
It was well in the afternoon when I crossed Agra.
During my bike trips, apart from the rough guidelines of the travel route, I do not make a fixed rigid itinerary. There are no advance bookings; be it hotels or the sites. The trip is lived as life on the road and the decisions are taken at the moment. Moreover, I do not prefer to drive in the night and therefore, the dusk when the oncoming vehicles start switching on the headlights is usually the time for me to stop for the day.
Therefore, looking at the riding time remaining in the day, Gwalior seemed like a possible destination for the day and therefore, I cruised past Agra. Soon, I found myself riding through the Chambal region, which was once notorious for the dacoits/bandits.
The ravines of the Chambal region (Beehad) clearly reflected the easy hideouts they provided to the dacoits.
Soon, Saarthi and I crossed the Chambal River.
The roads for the day had been amazing and the Agra-Gwalior route was no exception. Soon, I reached Gwalior well before the sunset and settled for the day. I paid the hotel tariff in advance (so that I can leave next day early morning if I wish, without waiting for anyone) and retired for the day. The day involved riding for about 6 hours and about 325 km.
I was a bit tired, however, the excitement of the successful start of another of my long rides and the full days of biking lying ahead was not letting me rest. Saarthi (my bike) was in perfect shape. No issues during the entire day at all. Saarthi had proved to be a reliable partner during the 2,600+ km Karnataka trip last year and I expect it to take the mettle this time around without any hassles. How that turns out will remain to be seen over next few days.
For now, the bike and the biker rest for the night with the dreams of taking the trip back in time in South Indian lands, imagining the countless artisans working hard on the stones to give shape to the legendary temples, imagining the fear struck soldiers standing guard on the forts witnessing a certain death from the swaths of murdering armies lying across the gates.
The trip for sure would be great fun.
Day 2 was going to be a full day of driving and I was eagerly looking forward to it. This day and many more subsequent days would surely quench my thirst for riding continuously for hours altogether.
While riding a bike, especially on cross-country rides, I have observed that after a while, the bike and biker become one. Effectively, the bike becomes an extension of the biker. Instead of the conscious maneuvering, the riding becomes reflexive. You no longer consciously focus on the road or on the traffic ahead. The bike and its controls follow your subconscious mind and the bike continues on its path.
Your mind, on the other hand, goes in a trance. You start focusing on the beauty of Mother Nature. You start reflecting on your life, your past, your dreams, your aspirations, your deeds and more often than not, you let your mind relax and think about nothing at all. That is the stage where I believe biking gives the biker a nirvana. It is no less than meditation and I love it.
The smooth road, the oncoming wind, the meandering traffic, the sense of control & the confidence when Saarthi negotiates the turns; it all makes riding a literally gliding experience. You do not drive; you glide on the roads.
All this was going to be me not for one or two or three days, but for weeks altogether. No wonder, I was excited and happy that I took the decision to undertake this trip.
I woke up at six and it was already a lot of light outside. I could start my ride much earlier than the previous day when I started from home. Once on a ride, it is easy to pack things. It would be a ritual of packing and unpacking each day for the next month.
While on the rides, I do not prefer using an alarm. The rides are a time to let the body and the mind relax. I let the body follow its own rhythm. Sleep when you feel like; wake up when the body has had enough sleep. No timelines, no deadlines, nothing else to look forward to but the entire day of riding. That is the time when man, the machine and nature become one.
I crossed the Gwalior town. The city was yet to come to its usual clamor. The shops were yet to open.
Soon, I was out of the city and on the highway. I had expectations of the excellent road on which I had ridden from Agra to continue ahead of Gwalior as well. However, I was in for a surprise. The road from Gwalior to Jhansi, for about 100 km was in a very bad shape. The entire stretch was under-construction with many diversions. The start of the day was definitely, not what I had expected. However, once I crossed Jhansi, the road condition improved drastically and riding become enjoyable.
It was turning out to be a hot day. However, nowadays I like riding on hot & sunny days definitely more than riding on cold or rainy days. I just need to keep my full body covered; the hands, the neck and especially the nose because the air that we breathe in, will determine whether our body would be able to take on the challenges that come with riding. If we keep breathing the hot air with nose uncovered, then for sure we would be hit by heatstroke in a day or two and that would mean the end of what could have been a fabulous trip.
I had faced it in the past, when I drove more than 600 km from Varanasi to Agra in June 2010 on part of my bike journey from Kolkata to New Delhi. It was a hot day with the temperature reaching 48*C. I had a heat stroke and as a result, I had to be admitted to a hospital in New Delhi. That was despite I had ensured to drink plenty of water during the ride.
From then on, I had tried different methods to make the body believe that what I am putting it through is a nice and comfortable experience. In my Gujarat bike trip in March 2017, when I rode from Mumbai to Haryana over 2 weeks and covered entire coastal Gujarat, I used to cover my nose with a folded handkerchief and kept it soaked with water. It was very comforting. However, I had to soak the handkerchief mask after every 10km.
In the current trip, I am using a double-folded bandana and it has been working amazingly well. (I did not feel the need to soak it in this entire trip).
Once the road condition improved after Jhansi, I cruised past cities like Lalitpur, Sagar, and Narsinghpur. At Narsinghpur, it was 5 PM and I had covered about 450 km in the day. The next major city on the route was Chhindwara, which was about 125 km away. As mentioned earlier, I do not prefer to drive once the light starts fading. Therefore, I had to decide whether to halt at Narsinghpur or try to push to Chhindwara, which would take me at least a couple of hours to ride. Moreover, from Narsinghpur, I was taking a detour from the NH44, which is the longest national highway in India running from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. Therefore, road conditions were also uncertain. To top it up, I could see the road entering into the hills ahead.
The best option was to seek some local advice. The petrol pump attendant told me that the road ahead was in great condition and even if I wish to ride throughout the night, it should not be an issue because the area is safe.
Content with the feedback, I let Saarthi roll towards the mountains ahead. The road was indeed very good. It was two-lane but without the divider, which a highway rider becomes used to. It was intriguing that the hills were full of dense trees. While driving on this stretch, I realized that I do not like driving alone in the evenings on unknown roads meandering through thick tall trees with scant traffic. The reason below.
This part of Central India has many forest reserves and the stretch I was riding on fell between Satpura National Park and Pench National Park. Documentaries on National Geographic have always mentioned that the national parks are rarely ring-fenced on all their boundaries and many times animals do wander outside the reserves. Pench National Park is a tiger reserve and Satpura National Park has leopard with sightings of tigers as well.
Riding alone on a road across a forest with daylight fading with every minute and very little accompanying or the oncoming traffic, I thought that it is better to take a halt as soon as I find a decent settlement.
The place I reached next was Harrai, a small town, where it seemed everyone knew everybody else. The first person I enquired about a lodge guided me to Sharmaji ki lodge called “Vinayak Mangal Bhawan”. The lodge was a decent place with accommodation charges starting from Rs. 150/- for a night.
Sharmaji who owns and runs the place had been a government officer posted in Harrai for most of his life and he decided to build a lodge here post his retirement. The investment in the lodge was huge and the occupancy was low. I was the only customer that they had that night. I settled for a single occupancy room, which cost me ₹400/-.
I was guided to “Mallu ka Dhaba” for dinner, which had tasty food. On my way back, I bought some essentials like a spare charger, a multi-plug extension cord, some raisins, and fruits.
After a full day of riding, I was tired and hit the bed early. I was thrilled with the anticipation of riding through the beautiful road through the green forest during the daytime the next day.
After riding for two more days and staying at Hinganghat (Maharashtra) on Day 3, I reached Hyderabad at the end of day 4. I stayed with my friend, Arun Kumar whom it seems that I only meet during my bike rides. The last time I had met Arun was in 2012 in Himachal Pradesh, when I was on my way back from the Leh-Ladakh solo bike trip.
On this trip, even though I crossed entire state of Madhya Pradesh from north to south; however, I did not explore it as a tourist. I did that almost one and a half years later when I dedicated two weeks to explore Madhya Pradesh in August – September, 2019: Exploring Madhya Pradesh: A Bike Ride to Malwa and Bundelkhand
Hyderabad – Warangal (Day 5)
After driving for 5 days, I finally reached the cities where I had planned to spend time as a tourist and Warangal was the first such place.
Warangal has an interesting history. It was the capital city of the Kakatiya Dynasty and the last known king of the dynasty, Prataparudra II had an interesting series of fights against the attacking forces from North India. In 1309, Alauddin Khaliji’s sent his general Malik Kafur to subjugate him. Malik Kafur defeated Prataparudra II in 1310 and therefore, he had to accept the condition of sending annual tributes (many horses and elephants) to Khaliji. In 1318, Prataparudra II stopped paying the annual tribute to Delhi and then the Alauddin’s son Mubarak Shah sent his army to defeat him. Prataparudra II was defeated and he again had to start sending annual tribute of horses and elephants to Delhi. Again in 1320, he stopped sending the annual tribute and then Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq sent his army to Warangal to overcome Prataparudra II. The Tughlaq army defeated him in 1323, captured him and was taking him to Delhi as a prisoner. It is said that Prataparudra II committed suicide on this journey to Delhi.
The story indicates the fierce desire of Kakatiya kings to stay independent and as a result, they revolted the moment they got an opportunity to re-establish their independent rule. Warangal had been a scene of multiple battles between armies trying to overcome each other.
I reached Warangal in the afternoon and therefore had ample time to visit the Thousand Pillared temple within the city.
The temple is a beautiful example of ancient architecture and has multiple carvings like a beautiful Nandi.
There are multiple statutes on the temple walls. The statutes are very beautiful with intricate artwork. However, only a few of them are intact. Many of the statues are broken representing the damages inflicted by the invading armies on the cultural heritage.
I was a little disappointed that there were no guides present at the temple site to help tourists appreciate the true importance of the temple. It was in stark contrast to my experience in Karnataka bike ride in September 2017 where every tourist location had plenty of very knowledgeable govt. registered guides who made a visit to the temples a very pleasant and insightful experience.
At Thousand Pillared temple, I had to rely on a single information board from the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), Lonely Planet India guide book and Wikipedia to understand more about the temple.
Warangal – Palampet – Bhadrachalam (Day 6)
Today, I had a plan to visit the Ramappa temple at Palampet, see the Warangal fort and then head to Bhadrachalam in the afternoon so that I may reach there before sunset.
The day started with a nice early-morning jog of about 5 km at the Jawaharlal Nehru Outdoor Stadium. Warangal seemed to be a very health-conscious city by looking at a very large number of people present in the stadium for morning exercises.
I reached the Ramappa temple at Palampet (about 70 km from Warangal) very early and I was the first tourist there. It took me a while before I could get the mobile number of the only tourist guide, Vijay, in Palampet. It took Vijay some time to arrive at the temple and we could cover the entire temple complex quickly.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has a beautiful statue of Nandi.
I came back to Warangal around noon and visited the fort. The fort was completed in the ruins, which does not come as a surprise considering the multiple fights witnessed by it. ASI has done good attempts to preserve the ruins and has created a beautiful garden at the site.
I was at the Warangal fort on a Sunday (March 18, 2018), however, I was surprised when I was told by the security guards that the day was a weekly holiday for the tourist guides. As a result, once again, I had to see an important tourist site by taking inputs from the internet and the guidebooks, which are no replacement for a knowledgeable tourist guide.
I could complete the sightseeing at the Warangal fort soon and then started my journey towards Bhadrachalam about 200 km away.
The drive to Bhadrachalam was beautiful as I had to drive about 50 km through the forest area and then about 100 km through the fertile area along the Godavari River. I must acknowledge that until now, I felt the fear of wild predators lurking behind the dense forest trees along the road whenever I drive through the forests when traffic is very low and I am only one driving on stretches extending to multiple kilometers.
I could get rid of this fear when I had my first visit to a national park about a year later where I was told by the guide that the predators usually avoid roads. The guide joked that people do not see wild predators even after going deep into their habitats inside jungles and I would be extremely lucky if I could spot a predator on public roads through the forests.
I reached Bhadrachalam, a temple town on the banks of Godavari River, in the evening and I had another experience, which indicated that probably I am traveling through the states, which have not prioritized tourism yet.
I was refused accommodation by multiple hotels in Bhadrachalam stating no room for a single traveler. Finally, after checking with many hotels, I could find one hotel who was willing to offer me a room.
Sri Rama Temple (Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy Devasthanam) at Bhadrachalam was beautifully lit and was a real treat to the eyes.
I planned to visit the temple the next day morning and spent some time at the ghat on the Godavari River. I could see many devotees sleeping on the steps leading to the river. Bhadrachalam, without doubt, has a very high position in the list of pilgrimages for people.
Bhadrachalam – Vijayawada (Day 7)
The morning visit to the Godavari ghat was a revelation of the continued faith of people in the customs, and the importance of rivers in the religious aspects.
I could witness multiple congregations of people at ghats where services of priests were being availed by poor people to complete various mandatory religious customs related to life and death. It was amusing to see the negotiations among the parties about the amount of dakshina/chadawa.
After paying homage to the deity at Sri Rama Temple and getting the Prasadam, I started the drive for Vijayawada, which is about 200 km away.
The drive was a pleasant drive. I had a humbling experience on the way when I saw a person peacefully sleeping on the roadside under the shade of a tree on a simple sheet of cloth. It was in stark contrast to modern day consumerism where almost everyone strives for as many material luxuries in life as possible. I hope I can achieve a little bit of minimalism in my life going ahead.
I reached Vijayawada in the afternoon and visited the famous Kanaka Durga Temple (Sri Durga Malleswara Swamy Varla Devasthanam) in the evening. It is a live temple and mobile phones are not allowed inside. I could do the darshan within a reasonable time as there was not a big rush of devotees. However, I could not take pics of the temple premises.
Near the temple, there is a bridge across the Krishna River connecting Krishna and Guntur districts. The bridge is called Prakasam Barrage and in the evening there is a beautiful light show conducted on the bridge. It was a pleasant experience after the darshan at the Durga temple to sit on the river banks and enjoy the light show.
Vijayawada – Srisailam (Day 8)
Today, I had plans to visit Undavalli cave temples near Vijayawada in the morning and then head for Srisailam.
Undavalli cave temples located 6 km from Vijayawada, are beautiful rock-cut cave temples like Badami, Karnataka.
These cave temples are famous for a huge statue of Lord Vishnu in a reclining posture.
There are many other statues of other deities like Hanuman, and Ganesha.
At Undavalli cave temples, I met Vikas who is an employee of Decathlon and was on a cycling tour to the temples.
After doing some shopping and other jobs, I started my journey to Srisailam about 260 km away from Vijayawada.
Srisailam is a Hindu pilgrimage, which is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. It has the famous Sri Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna Temple.
The temple is located deep inside the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve and one has to drive about 50 km in the dense forest to reach the temple. The forest has about 110 tigers and is known for poaching as well as illegal trades in timber.
So once again, I found myself driving on a road through a dense forest with very low traffic but with a lot of tigers and poachers. Luckily, I could cross the forest road before sunset and felt safe after reaching Srisailam.
However, my experience with the poor tourism priorities of the state was not yet over. At Srisailam, again, I was denied room by many hotels stating no accommodation for single traveler. Moreover, the hotels asked me for permission letter from the local police station before considering my request for accommodation. I was perplexed. The sun had already set and there was no way that I was to drive back to another town through the dense forest infested with tigers and poachers at night.
Luckily, one hotel agreed to grant me a bed in their dormitory section. After a long day’s ride and the frustration of denied accommodation at many hotels, I finally had a place to sleep.
I put my luggage in the locker and after a bit of rest, went to the temple for the darshan. At the temple, I was surprised to see the huge number of devotees lined up for the darshan. For proper crowd management, the administration had divided the waiting area into multiple cells, which looked like prison cells with steel bars. Once one cell was full to its capacity, the guards locked the rear gate through which the devotees had just entered. Now, the only way for the devotees was to wait for the front gate to open and then head for the next section of the waiting line. I could see that there were multiple such cells full of devotees before ours, which were locked from the rear gate and the people were waiting for their turn for the front gate of their cell to open. It was a situation where once you are locked into a cell, you cannot go back out even if you change your mind and want to skip the darshan and go out.
I was in no mind to stand in line for multiple hours that it would have taken to do the darshan and I retraced my way back to the entry gate before the rear gate of the cell I was in could be locked. Once I was out of the waiting section, I felt relieved.
I went to the exit gate, which was near the Shikhara of the temple and paid my homage to the deity from outside the temple walls.
I bought the prasadam from the counter and came back to the dormitory to rest for the night.
Srisailam – Chennai – Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) (Day 9, 10)
Day 9 involved driving from Srisailam to Chennai, a distance of about 475 km. I reached Chennai in the evening and stayed near Marina beach. I was tired from the full day’s ride and therefore, postponed the visit to the beach to the next morning.
On Day 10, I visited the Marina beach early in the morning. The sea at marina beach is quite a distance away from the road therefore, one has to take a pleasant long walk through the sand to take to reach the water. I spent a nice time on the beach early morning.
Today, my plan was to drive up to Mahabalipuram and stay there before I commence my journey deeper into Tamil Nadu.
The short drive of 50 km from Chennai to Mahabalipuram is very beautiful where one drives on the coastal road and continuously experiences the cool sea breeze.
Mahabalipuram is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage List and is famous for Shore Temple, rock carvings and the beach. I reached here in the afternoon and had plenty of time to visit the beach and see the rock carvings in the evening. I planned to visit the Shore Temple the next morning.
Mahabalipuram was hit by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and as a result, the beach was completely damaged. There are still relics on the beach that remind the visitors about the destruction caused by the ill-famed tsunami.
The most famous rock carving in the town is the Arjuna’s Penance, which is carved at the face of a huge rock and depicts various deities, and animals from many stories of the Panchatantra books.
There are many impressive temples that are carved out of rocks, which indicates the enormous amount of time & effort spent by the artisans to create those temples.
Inside these temples, the sculpturers have depicted stories like the lifting of Govardhana Parvat by Lord Sri Krishna in Mahabharata.
The garden next to Arjuna’s Penance has a lot of interesting artifacts. There is a huge boulder, which is precariously balanced on the slope. The boulder is called Krishna’s Butter Ball.
Among the numerous boulders and rock pieces spread across the garden, a visitor can see evidence of ancient practices to break rocks into pieces. One such practice was to carve small holes into boulders, put pieces of wood into them and then keep watering the woods. Over time, the wood will swell and then break the rock into pieces.
Mahabalipuram presented as a nice surprise in terms of the beautiful, engaging rock monuments. The evening was well spent. However, I missed the company of good tourist guides who could have brought these monuments to life with their elaborate descriptions.
Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) – Gingee (Day 11)
I visited the world-famous Shore Temple early in the morning to enjoy the beautiful sunrise.
Shore Temple was originally constructed in the 7th century CE and has been weathered a lot by erosion from the continuous sea breeze. As a result, many sections of the temple building are locked and are inaccessible for the tourists.
Another famous monument at Mahabalipuram is the Five Rathas from Mahabharata. These are actually rock-cut cave temples and named Draupadi Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Dharmaraja Ratha, and Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha.
After visiting these monuments at Mahabalipuram in the morning, I drove to the destination for the day, Gingee about 110 km away. It was a short and beautiful drive of about 2 hours.
I reached Gingee in the afternoon and had biryani served in the traditional style on the banana leaf.
Gingee is famous primarily for its fort (Rajagiri), which was constructed by the Vijayanagara Empire in the 16th century. The fort is on the top of a high mountain.
The fort provided a formidable defense for its occupants due to the steep ascent and multiple levels of fortifications at each level.
And if any army managed to climb up to the higher reaches after meeting resistance at lower levels, then they had to over the final and the most formidable barrier, the retractable wooden bridge.
The fort is on a hill, which has a steep decline of about a hundred feet on all sides. The only way to reach the hilltop is through the wooden bridge shown in the pic above. The bridge is retractable. If the enemy managed to come this far, then at these final stages, they have to overcome the most difficult challenge of crossing this gap with arrows raining at them.
I am certain that this point would have seen many gory battles with a huge loss of lives.
The climb up the hill is very challenging and there is dense vegetation on the slopes, which makes it very secluded area after dark. The administration has clearly prohibited anyone from going uphill after 3 PM.
However, once a person takes the arduous climb to the top, then she is greeted with a beautiful view of the fields and the town below.
The fort seems to be a place where some ascetic seems to perform his rituals. I noticed this trident on the way uphill to the fort.
After coming back from the trek up the Gingee fort, I was dead tired and could not think of anything but rest the entire evening. I decided to take full rest and visit the Arunachaleswar Temple at Tiruvannamalai the next day.
Gingee – Tiruvannamalai – Pondicherry (Day 12)
In the morning, I visited the Arunachaleswar temple at Tiruvannamalai, which is about 50 km from Gingee.
Arunachaleswar temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is very large, which has huge gopurams (towers over the entrance gates) on all the four sides. There was a wooden model of the temple premises on display.
The eastern gopuram is a massive one with 13 storeys and rises up to 66m.
The temple walls have many sculptures and it was interesting to see some statues of people looking like Chinese offering their prayers to Lord Shiva (Arunachaleswar), which indicates the frequent cultural exchange and trade between the ancient kingdoms of India and China.
The temple is at the base of a hill known as Arunachala Hill locally known as Girivalam. It is a custom for the pilgrims to circumnavigate the hill to pay homage to Lord Arunachaleswar. Most of the pilgrims undertake this journey of 14 km on foot. However, Saarthi and I could complete the journey a lot quicker.
After returning from Tiruvannamalai to Gingee, I checked out from the hotel and headed to Pondicherry about 70 km away. It took me about 1.5 hours to reach there.
In the evening, I visited the main beach of the city, the Promenade Beach. I found the beach to be a rocky beach instead of the more enjoyable sand beaches. However, the evening was well spent on the beach sitting on the rocks with feet dipped in the water.
There is only one café at the Promenade beach, “Le Café”. The café is run by the govt. and has a very good location with nice views from the sitting area.
The restaurant served food that is economical in price and average in taste.
After spending the evening at the beach, I returned to the hotel with plans to visit the sandy beaches of Pondicherry the next morning.
Pondicherry – Chidambaram – Gangaikonda Cholapuram (Day 13)
Today, I had plans to visit a sandy beach in Pondicherry and then first, drive to Chidambaram to see the Nataraja Temple there and then drive to Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
Early in the morning, before sunrise, I visited the Serenity beach about 5 km from the city center. It was humbling to see that the fishermen were coming back from the sea after catching fish at that time. It looked like they had been out at the sea most of the night while I was sleeping peacefully in the comforts of a cozy hotel room
It was a pleasant experience to witness the sunrise at the beach.
I then headed to Chidambaram about 65 km away from Pondicherry. I reached Chidambaram around noontime, after a short ride and checked in a hotel for a couple of hours as my plans were to visit the famous Nataraja Temple here and the head for the destination for the day at Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
Chidambaram was the capital of the Chola Empire from 10th century to 14th century and therefore, the empire created a grand temple for Lord Shiva, Nataraja Temple, here.
The temple has a grand entrance via a magnificent Gopuram.
Unlike most other temples of Tamil Nadu, which are managed by the state govt., the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram is managed by the priests as a co-operative. The co-operative of the priests collect the donations and then uses the same for temple expenses. Probably, such an arrangement was the reason that the Gopuram had statues of the priests welcoming the devotees.
The temple complex has a big tank called Sivaganga and a thousand-pillared hall called Raja Sabha adjoining the tank, which is opened only on special festival days.
It was a hot day and in the afternoon, the stone floor of the temple complex had become very hot. On top of it, one had to leave the footwear outside the temple complex. It made wandering around the temple complex a difficult exercise. However, I was surprised at the ease in which my guide was walking on the hot stone floor-tiles whereas I was not able to set my foot on them. The quest to earn a livelihood makes people very strong in the face of physical hardships as well.
Nataraja is the form of Lord Shiva in a dancing position. The temple had done justice with its name by beautifully painting all 108 dancing positions of Nataraja at the roof of the temple complex.
The guide at the temple was unhappy that Nataraja Temple is not under the direct control of the state govt. As per the guide, the existing arrangement of priests’ co-operative in charge of the temple has made the temple a private enterprise of the priests. The guide told me that the right to be a priest passes only in the existing priest families and the outsiders have very little chance of being a priest here. Moreover, the priests do not allow guides to enter the temple complex without taking a cut from their income. He intimated that many activists are taking legal options to persuade state govt. to take over the temple administration.
I wished him luck and then started on my journey to Gangaikonda Cholapuram about 50 km away.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram has an interesting history. The city was established by Rajendra Chola I when he defeated the Pala Kings of Bengal who had control over North India. Gangaikonda Cholapuram means the Chola king who won over the Ganga River. Rajendra Chola I was the son of the most famous Chola King, Rajaraja I, who had constructed the Brihadishwara Temple at Thanjavur. To commemorate his victory over North Indian Territory, Rajendra Chola I constructed a similar temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and then instructed the defeated kingdoms to send water of River Ganga in pots to Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which was then put into the well of the temple here.
The temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has been beautifully maintained with ornate gardens around it.
The temple complex has a large statue of Nandi.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram is a very small village currently and therefore, there are no hotels/restaurants here. I had a hard time finding a place to stay and after a long search, I could manage to stay at a marriage hall.
For food, I had to travel to the main road about 3 km away from the marriage hall and only then I could find a restaurant that served food.
However, it was a surprise that the restaurant charged me only for the roti/chapattis and the non-veg curry was complementary. This was exactly the opposite of my experience in Dubai (Oct. 2017) where the restaurants charge customers for the curry and the bread is complementary.
The meal at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was the most value-for-money meal that I have ever had.
Back at the hotel/marriage hall, the preparations for the marriage ceremony were in full swing and in the continuous music, the sleep was hard to come by.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram – Dharasuram (Kumbakonam) – Thanjavur (Day 14)
I started the day early from Gangaikonda Cholapuram and reached Dharasuram, near Kumbakonam, about 40 km away, at about 8 AM. My plan was to visit the Airatesvara Temple in the city and then head for Thanjavur.
Airatesvara temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is maintained beautifully with a garden around it.
The temple has many beautiful sculptures, which show the intricacy of the artwork prevalent at the time of the Chola Empire.
Another feature of the Airatesvara Temple is the large rows of pillars, which look monumental and beautiful.
My visit to Dharasuram, the village with Airatesvara temple, was a short one where I had to spend only a couple of hours to visit the temple and then move ahead on my journey. I was looking forward to checking into any hotel for a couple of hours to safely place my belongings and then visit the temple. However, Dharasuram is a small village with no hotels/lodge facilities.
I was driving very slowly on the road with continuous searching glances on roadside buildings in search of any hotel/guesthouse. However, I could not find any. Finally, a few workers at a restaurant asked me the purpose of my visit. After knowing about my journey, they offered to take care of my luggage, which I could place near the cash counter while I visit the temple.
This was one of the occasions on this trip, where I trusted the strangers with my belongings. I visited the temple and on my return found that my luggage was safe and secure and the trust was honoured.
After having breakfast at the restaurant, I continued on the road to Thanjavur about 35 km away.
Thanjavur used to be the capital of the Chola Empire and is famous for the Brihadishwara Temple built by Chola King Rajaraja I. The temple is on the UNESCO World Heritage site list.
The Shikhara (vimanam, tower) of the temple 13-storey high at 66m. At the top of Shikhara, there is a dome weighing 80 tonnes constructed from a single piece of granite stone. It is said that the dome was placed at the top of the Shikhara by creating a 4 km ramp which was used by the elephants to drag the dome to the top of the temple.
The temple also has a giant statue of Nandi, 6m long and 3m high created from a single piece of rock. The Nandi statue is one of the largest in India.
Thanjavur also has other sites like the royal palace and the museums, which tell us more about the times of Chola Kings. The remnants of the durbar hall are very beautiful and indicate the glory that the place would have at its prime.
The palace complex also has screenings of a short movie, which intimates the viewers about the history of Thanjavur and the Chola Kingdom. I enjoyed this short film and found it insightful.
Thanjavur – Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) (Day 15)
For last many days, my routine had been to drive in the morning to the next temple town, check into a hotel and then visit the monuments of the city, stay at the hotel for the night and the next morning head for the next temple town.
Today was no different and I drove from Thanjavur to Tiruchirappalli about 60 km away. I covered this distance in about one hour and reach Tiruchirappalli with plenty of time in the day to visit both the attractions of Rock Fort Temple and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple.
Rock Fort Temple is situated on a hill of about 80m high. It consists of two temples, Sri Thyumanaswamy Temple in the midway, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the Vinayaka Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Ganesha at the top. To reach the summit, one needs to take 437 steps carved out of the stone.
The top of the hill provides a panorama view of the town.
The parikrama around the Ganesha temple at the top consists of a gallery open from all sides. The open gallery being at the top of a hill greets the devotees with a cool breeze even on a hot day. The cool breeze at the temple top is a welcome respite when compared to the steps leading to the temple, which are burning hot in the sun.
I spent a considerable amount of time in the parikrama gallery enjoying the cool breeze and the view of the town below.
In the evening, I visited the famous Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The temple is spread across 60 hectares and is the largest in India. The temple has 21 gopurams (entrance gates). A priest agreed to show me around the temple and being a priest, he could take me to certain sections, which were otherwise locked for access.
The temple is massive with multiple thick stone pillars standing in glory supporting the structure for centuries.
Temple has a lot of beautifully carved structures like statues, doors, pillars with mythological stories etc.
The temple complex is so large that it takes at least a couple of hours to walk across the temple a take a good look at all the offerings. We had started our temple tour in the evening and it was well into the darkness when we finished it.
It was a tiring day involving a steep climb at the Rock Fort Temple in the afternoon and then a long walk in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in the evening. The sleep I had at night was very relaxing.
In Tiruchirappalli, a couple of bikers stopped me on the roads to introduce themselves as fellow bikers from Trichy. It was a pleasant feeling to see the comraderies in the bikers’ community across the regions.
Tiruchirappalli – Madurai (Day 16)
The plan for today was to drive to Madurai about 130 km from Tiruchirappalli and visit the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple. It was a drive of about 2 hours and I reached Madurai around noontime and checked into the hotel.
At the hotel, I was surprised to notice that I had a swelling in the right foot, which probably was the result of the drag I felt on my foot while starting the ride in the morning. My foot got stuck in the stairs near the parking when I released the clutch. As a result, the bike put a drag on the foot. I had not felt any pain throughout the morning ride of about 2 hours, so I could assume that it was not a serious injury like a bone fracture.
I visited a hospital near the hotel and got an x-ray done. The x-ray showed that the bones were intact and the swelling was due to the soft tissue injury. I got the medications and rested in the hotel for the afternoon.
In the evening, I visited the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which is one of the oldest temples in India. It was first created by the Pandyas when Madurai used to be their capital.
The temple is a live temple and there are a lot of restrictions on the material that one can take inside the temple complex. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited inside the temple complex. As a result, you cannot take pictures inside the temple, which effectively creates a livelihood for numerous photographers inside the temple who offer to take your photographs with nice compositions of temple structures.
The temple is a large complex with long and wide avenues and a continuous rush of devotees. There were multiple guides pushing each other to get attention of devotees and it was a ruckus. I did not feel like spending a lot of time at the temple and finished the darshan and a visit around the complex fast.
The following pic at the entrance Gopuram is the only pic I could take at Sri Meenakshi Temple.
Madurai – Rameswaram (Day 17)
Today, I drove about 175 km to reach Rameswaram, which is famous for Ramanathaswamy Temple and also as the home town of former President of India Late APJ Abdul Kalam.
Rameswaram is an island that is connected with the mainland with a bridge. The bridge is very picturesque. However, photography is prohibited once you are on the bridge.
Even more important is the railway bridge parallel to the road bridge. The road bridge has a section, which is lifted up to make way for the ships to cross the creek. Once the ship has crossed the bridge, then the railway bridge sections are lowered so that the trains may cross it to reach Rameswaram.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple at Rameswaram is one of the Char Dham in Hindu religion along with Badrinath (Uttarakhand), Dwarka (Gujarat) and Puri (Orissa). This is one of the most important pilgrimages and therefore, attracts a lot of devotees.
The temple complex is very huge, however, photography is prohibited and visitors have to leave their mobile phones outside the temple premises. As a result, I could not take any photos of the temple.
Inside the temple, there are large corridors with numerous sculptures on the pillars. The temple has 22 wells named theerthams and the devotees take a bath in the water from each of the wells to complete the rituals. However, the devotees face a peculiar situation when they reach the temple entrance after taken the ritual bathing because they are obviously dripping wet and find that it is prohibited to enter the temple with wet clothes.
Many devotees who are unaware of this custom and as a result, do not carry spare clothes end up standing in the sun nearby so that their clothes may dry and then they may enter the temple to pay homage to the deity.
After darshan at the temple, I visited the Dhanushkodi beach in the evening. Dhanushkodi is the last stretch of land from India towards Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Munnar. Beyond Dhanushkodi, it is Adam’s Bridge that leads to Sri Lanka.
The road from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi is very beautiful with the sea on both sides of the road.
However, before I could reach the last streak of the land, I was stopped by the police a few kilometers earlier. The police personnel intimated that it was evening time (5:30 PM) and tourists are allowed ahead only until 5 PM as the area is unsafe after dark. Apparently, there had been some security-related incidents with the tourists over last few days.
As a result, I could not reach the Dhanushkodi Sangam of the Bay of Bengal and the India Ocean on this day and decided to come back early morning the next day.
The place near the police barricades had a jetty, which provided a beautiful location to enjoy the sea breeze at the sunset.
Rameswaram – Kanyakumari (Day 18)
I started the day early in order to reach the Dhanushkodi beach and Sangam point by sunrise. In the early morning, the drive on well laid out tarmac roads, accompanying sea and the cool sea breeze was an amazing experience.
Finally, when one reaches the Sangam point and witnesses the waters of two massive bodies of water, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean merge with each other, then she is left wondering at the insignificance of her own being. Looking at the scale of these large limitless natural creations, one realizes how small her existence is.
At the Sangam point, a pillar with the State Emblem of India, the four lions of Ashoka, is established.
It probably indicates to the fishermen at the sea that they are nearing Indian land, which is important at a place where both Indian and Sri Lankan land are not very far away.
After spending some time at the beach and the Sangam point, I started my journey back to Rameswaram and then to Kanyakumari, the destination for the day more than 300 km away.
I reached Kanyakumari in the afternoon. Kanyakumari, also known as Cape Comorin) in the ancient texts is the southernmost point of mainland India. (The southernmost tip of Republic of India is at the Andaman & Nicobar Islands).
Kanyakumari is famous as the end of the Indian subcontinent, for its Kumari Amman Temple dedicated to Goddess Parvathi and the Vivekananda memorial among other things.
I visited the Vivekananda Memorial in the evening. Vivekananda Memorial is on an island about 400m inside the sea and stands alongside another small island with a towering statue (133ft) of famous Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.
After taking a ferry ride, one reaches the memorial, which witnesses a significant tourist footfall.
However, despite the presence of a lot of tourists it is not difficult to find a secluded corner and then spend some time sitting at peace getting immersed in the thoughts while simultaneously getting hit by strong sea winds.
After spending a lot of time at the Vivekananda Memorial Island, I took the ferry back and spent the evening exploring other beaches of the town.
Kanyakumari – Bangalore (Bengaluru) (Day 19)
Whenever one visits Kanyakumari, it is customary to wake up early and see the sunrise. I did the same from the sunrise point at the hotel roof. However, unfortunately, the horizon was covered with the clouds and we could witness the sun only after it was a bit above the horizon.
With today’s sunrise, the Delhi to Kanyakumari trip, which started on March 13, 2018, has reached its conclusion after 19 days on March 31, 2018. Now the return journey would commence.
From Kanyakumari, I drove until Bangalore for about 600 km on this day. I reached Bangalore in the evening completing about 5,000 km of the road trip.
I left Saarthi (my bike) with my brother at Bangalore, to be transported back to Noida later and took the train journey back to Delhi.
I feel lucky that I undertook this trip, which took me through almost the entire length of the country. I could traverse the lands on the routes undertaken by large armies of both sides on foot. It was mesmerizing to think that on these routes hundreds of years ago, the armies of Delhi Sultanate walked to conquer the Deccan and the armies of Cholas moved to win over Gangetic plains.
I could see the human resolve for independence shown by the Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal and the impacts it has on the city and the forts. It was amazing to the contribution of different kings to the Indian art and culture in terms of numerous temples like the Thousand Pillared Temple of Warangal, Shore temple of Mahabalipuram, World famous temples of Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Kumbakonam as well as live temples of Bhadrachalam, Vijayawada, Srisailam, Chidambaram, Tiruvannamalai, Tiruchirappalli, Madurai and Rameswaram, which have provided religious contentment to large masses since time immemorial.
It was a thrilling at Gangaikonda Cholapuram to close my eyes at the temple and then imagine that the mighty king has just returned from conquering almost entire India and the water of the Holy Ganga River is being poured in the well.
Listening to the history of the Chola Empire at Thanjavur was a revealing experience. The details of the engineering challenges overcome to create dams to ensure that Thanjavur becomes the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu was humbling.
I learned a lot about myself when I had to search for accommodation at Gangaikonda Cholapuram that did not have a single hotel/accommodation or trusting strangers with my belonging at Dharasuram or the frenetic search at Srisailam when almost every hotel refused me a room. I had the most valuable meal at the roadside hotel near Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which is an experience that I can never forget.
The most important learning by traveling through the heartland of “South India” was that I found so many people willing to help without understanding either Hindi or English. I believe that everyone loves to help travelers probably because they realize that the traveler is undertaking some hardship to visit their lands and they wish to make her stay comfortable and carry back good memories. It is such welcoming attitude of the people that reignites the will to travel time and again.
After 23 days and riding about 5,000 km on the roads, I reached home in Noida on April 4, 2018, which concluded this trip to South India.
It sure would not be the last trip that I take because a lot of states in our marvelous country are still remaining. Until then, take care.