Friday, October 10, 2008

Rameshwaram - my trip story


Ever since I heard of two consecutive holidays on Wednesday and Thursday, I’d started planning a “Tour de Tamil Nadu” starting from Rameshwaram and covering Tranquebar. The other places were yet to be decided and so were my “casual leaves” on the following two days, Friday and Saturday.

Things went haywire when a client woke up on Tuesday evening and gave work with Friday afternoon as the deadline. Which now meant Wednesday as well as Thursday could not be off. “No problem” I thought. I thought of coming on Wednesday morning, doing my share of work and leaving by afternoon. Then Thursday to Sunday would be mine. I was yet to intimidate my boss about my desire to take two days casual leave preceded and succeeded by holidays.

Wednesday morning, I was in office partly doing my work and more keenly reading about Rameshwaram. I was done by 130 PM. I mean done with work. Now time to call my boss! This was a difficult task but I felt I would manage. I called him and told him the status of work and that the next day I wasn’t coming to office. Quiet ironic because the next day was a holiday and I had to ask for two more days holiday. He said “But you’ll be available through phone, right?” “Yes I’m going to Rameshwaram but I’ll be available on my phone.” He asked me how I was going, to which I replied “By bus” in a slightly shaky tone. “FFFFOOOOLISHHH” came his reply. “Never take a bus for more than 250 kms.” followed by “book train tickets”. I hung up saying I would find out what could be done.

I called him back in 10 minutes after checking the names and timings of trains. I called him and told him I would book tickets in waiting list itself and leave. I also said I wanted to be there on dussehra. I had pulled the right string of the religious man. He finally agreed and said “It’s up to you but it’s better you go by train instead of bus”

That was it. I hit the road saying bye to my only colleague in office. Lachu handed over Rs. 50 for me to deposit in the temple. “First let me see if I make it” I said. To which he replied. “Off course you will. You’re determined.”

After lunch and packing, I reached the railway station a bit too late to book a ticket for that day’s train. Nevertheless, I booked a return ticket. Lachu’s words somehow made things look right for me. Next I went to the bus terminal and took the 545 PM bus.

Before 615 am the next morning, I have dinner, watch a tamil movie “Ghilli” in the bus and manage a decent 5 hours of sleep. Everything was perfect except the extra letter h in Ghilli.


615 am. The bus stops. We passengers come out of the bus. I’m still yawning. I’m surprised how we reached so early while the conductor said the arriving time was 730. I go to a shopkeeper and ask him where the temple is. He gestured to the right. Suddenly a sight catches my eye. A few passengers are still in the bus. I rushed and asked the conductor “Isn’t this Rameshwaram?” He smiled and said no. That’s the next stop. That was Ramanathapuram.

So I went back to the bus and tried to catch up on some sleep. All in vain! A few minutes later, the sight was worth missing out on sleep. The bus was on a bridge on the sea. That’s when I realized Rameshwaram is an island! Hilarious as it may sound!

A beautiful sea it was indeed! With boats scattered on both sides, and the sun just rising, the view was spectacular. I knew I had chosen the right destination to visit. A few minutes later I ended up at Rameshwaram bus stop. I now go about asking directions, places to visit, having tea etc.

By 8:00 I end up in front of the Ramanathaswamy temple, one of the most important hindu temples. In fact, one out of the four ‘pavitra dhaams’. It is believed that a hindu’s life is incomplete without visiting the four pavitra dhaams. I have no idea about the other three but was glad I made it here.

I didn’t have a shower by then because I read about the “Teertha” where most pilgrims bathe before entering the temple. I’m now infront of a board which reads Teertha Rs.7, Tax Rs. 10. I was making my way to the counter when I was called from behind. A man said “slippers outside”. As he led me the way, he asked “Bath or #@$ ?” The second word sounded gibberish so I chose bath. He hastily took me to the counter, bought tickets and kept them in his hand.

I was led to this deep pond. He pulled a bucket of water and SPLASH! He poured it on me. I asked him if I could atleast take off my shirt, controlling my temper. “Half pant” came a question and “towel” went the answer. He next took me to another similar deep pond. But this one was small enough to be called a well as well. The well was divided into three parts namely Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati. He called me towards him and poured water from all three parts.

The man was still running and calling me. He was rushing inside the temple. I was behind him in the templein just a towel. He then told me the first Teertha is Durga. The other three were Ganga Jamuna and Saraswati. I still couldn’t figure out what he meant until he continued saying each of Ganga Jamuna and Saraswati would cost me Rs. 50 each, adding to Rs. 150. He then went rushing ahead. I stopped for 2 seconds turned around and went back “ To hell with him and his Rs. 150” I thought

I later entered the temple properly dressed. There was a queue of about 40 people in front of the first idol, that of Ramanathaswamy. The temple was beautiful with various idols of Lord Shiva, Godess Parvathy, Hanuman and Lord Ganesh. There were many Shivalingas, the Chidambaram Nataraja performing the cosmic dance and a larger than life idol of Nandi the bull.

Luckily, I didn’t see the teertha man again and I found my slippers just where I removed them. After darshan I moved for breakfast and had the best Vadas ever. Later I moved down the road coming from the temple and I end up in front of sparkling blue water. I’ve atleast been to 20 beaches in my life but I’d never seen the sea in this colour! Took my phone and started clicking pics. I regretted not having a camera.

I then moved along the coast seeing a few boats, wondering if there were any boat rides. But I ended at the wrong end for boat riding. Clicking pictures, I suddenly realized that my mobile battery nearly drained out. I had to do something. I came up with an idea of finding a cyber café. If they had a charger, I could charge my mobile enough. So I headed to a nearby shop asking him where the nearest cyber café is. He told me directions. I thanked him and just asked him if he had a mobile charger. Yes came the answer. Ten rupees he said. That didn’t seem much considering the requirement. He cut a Rs. 10 token and gave it to me. The next half hour was spent there ensuring my mobile phone didn’t vanish. I left half an hour later with a half charged battery

Ramapadam (Ram’s footprints) was the next destination. The auto driver said 100 Rupees for five other places as well. So I moved to Ramapadam then. Ramapadam is a temple where they claim to have preserved Lord Rama’s footprints. It is worshipped. Above the temple, one can get a bird’s eye view of Rameshwaram. Breathtaking is the word. White sand, greenery, brown sand, windmills and temples all around, surrounded by the sparkling blue sea. The island from above made me feel like I was in some other part of the world or in another world altogether. I would be surprised if any cameraman could do justice to the view that captivates the eye with such fervour.

After that, the automan took me to a few other temples. All had some relation or the other to the epic Ramayana. Rameshwaram is believed to be the place form where Lord Rama and his Sena built a bridge of floating stones to Lanka. One of the temples claims to preserve one of those floating stones. Another is place where Lakshamana worshipped Lord Shiva and the stories go on…

My story then goes to the most boring part. An eventless hour spent at a cyber café just because I felt I had too much time. Suddenly I realized I had just around Rs.150 left with me. Red Alert! I had to find an ICICI ATM or any other which accepts ICICI . I finally found an SBI ATM. But the transaction could not be carried out. The only other ATM was Bank of India. Again Bad luck! After calling ICICI Customer care, I got to know that on public holidays, you could only withdraw cash from the ATMs of your bank. The nearest ICICI ATM is Ramanathapuram, more than one hour by bus. Going there and coming back would mean missing Dhanush Kodi.

So I had lunch from an affordable place and headed to Dhanush Kodi with the hundred something bucks that I had. Dhanush Kodi is believed to be the place from where Lord Rama built the bridge to Lanka. I waited for nearly 20 minutes for the bus. After a 30 minute ride though usual Tamil Nadu roads and unusual conifer trees, we reached the Dhanush Kodi bus stop. A swarm of people entering the bus were obstructing our way out but we somehow managed our way out through the chaos.

Next I’m walking along the beautiful beach wondering “what next?” I was sure this wasn’t it. I had read and heard about land and stones on the sea, in the direction facing SriLanka. But this was just a usual beach, unusually beautiful though but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I looked ahead along the coast and saw the coastline protruding. I felt this was it. I rather was confident that was the place. So I started walking towards it.

I could see water at the exact opposite direction to the beach as well. That was a rather narrower part of the island. Water was visible on both ends. Once again time to take out the invention of the century or should I say last century, the mobile phone to take pictures.

I kept walking along the coast in the scorching heat. It was now getting harder walking on the loose sand as it was taking much more effort. After walking for 2 to 3 kms, I asked a man how far the Setu was. He stretched out his palm and said 5 km. “Damn! 5 more kilometers on the sand?” I thought. I still continued walking looking at water at either ends. Then I saw a truck moving half way between either coasts. So I thought I could rather walk from that part of the island. Atleast it would take less effort.

I kept walking while another truck approached. I gestured him to stop and was in two minds. But once the truck stopped I just hopped on. The driver said Rs. 50. I had a financial crisis but I couldn’t let it come in my way. I nodded

I got on to the back of the truck. The backflap which serves as a door and which opens vertically downwards, was our footboard. I had to stand behind a snobbish man who wasn’t ready to move or adjust. So here I am standing on a flap, clinging on to whatever piece of metal or rope I could find around and my hands stretched out, thanks to Mr. snobbish.

The truck ride would’ve even been a boneshaker ride for people comfortably seated inside. It was like a 4wd driving on sand dunes. The trucks would be at a slight angle from the ground on every turn and where the soil was loose; trucks had made a deep trail. A slight deviation from the trails caused more havoc. The worst however were sharp left turns. I was at the right corner clinging on to pieces of metal and rope and the sharp left turns were pushing me away with a strong pseudo force. I had to balance by shifting all my weight to my right leg and countering the sideward pushes from people to my left. It was like the famous fevicol truck ad. I was sure Piyush Pandey had been here.

After the bumpy ride, I was at Dhanushkodi, the Setu with red hands, printed with rope marks. A few meters away, in the water was another piece of land. Many such pieces of land and rocks would be there on the 18 km stretch of water between Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka. Just 18 km away from Sri Lanka! That’s the closest I’d been to my birth place in the last 23 or so years! I was wondering if the other end of the sea was also as stunning.

Again time for click click click. I then entered the water. It was so calm and clear. I could see where the water was getting deeper. The sand was loose even inside water. My foot was sinking in the sand beneath the water. I’d been to places with wilder waves and sudden descends in the sea bed. This was calm and clear but still this part of Rameshwaram didn’t seem to be the right place to venture. Moreover after hardly 10 minutes, the truck was leaving back to the bus stop.

Time again for boneshaker part 2. I chose to sit above the truck. It was fascinating. I still had to hold on tight to ropes but jus to stop me from falling. Earlier I had to cling on to them. On the way back, the truck stopped at an old firangi church which has now eroded and an old railway station which has been demolished. The railway tracks until here would erode very often, so they demolished the station some 50 years back

I wonder how the firang (I’m not sure if they were British) managed to build a church in such a desolate piece of land which is all sand. I also wondered where the Vanara Sena got all their stones for the Setu because all you can see from there is sand and water

Now I’ve reached back to the Dhanush Kodi bus stand. The time is 5 PM. I have to plan my next move. With around hundred rupees, getting on to the train with a waiting list ticket would be risky. Even if I managed to the bribe the TT, I would need money for dinner and to reach home from the Chennai railway station. So my next destination was Ramanathapuram because that’s where the ICICI ATM was. I had to catch a bus from Rameshwaram.

The bus for Rameshwaram had still not come by 5:25 PM. I was remembering the bus in which I came to Dhanush Kodi. How people were hurrying to get on to the bus while we were trying to alight the bus. I looked around to see if we were going for an action replay. Not many people around. I felt we would comfortably board the bus.

At 530, the bus arrives and I suddenly feel like I’m in a Mumbai Local train. Everybody’s pushing each other to get a seat. Many people still left to leave the bus. A handful of foreigners who just made their way out of the chaos were totally pissed off. I couldn’t stop laughing at their consternation.

There were loud quarrels for seats which were getting louder but never broke in to physical fights. That’s because volume was their only weapon. The screeches of women demanding ladies seats and brawls and arguments in all Indian languages were way noisier than the crackers which would be burning in all parts of the country around that time to burn the effigies of Ravana. I reach Rameshwaram at 6 and within 2 minutes, I leave Rameshwaram for Ramanathapuram.

At 6, the Rameshwaram bus stop was the same as I had seen in the morning. The same amount of light. Only the sun had changed it’s direction.

The whole drive from Rameshwaram to Ramanathapuram was the morning’s bus ride being rewound.

I reached Ramanathapuram at 7:30. Luckily, the bus stop, the ICICI ATM and the Railway station are not far from each other. So I withdraw some money and by 8 pm, I’m at the railway station. I’m bored so I start writing the epilogue for the journey and the power goes out at 8:30. This was the first time I saw a power cut in a Railway station and hence thought it deserves a mention in the blog, even though it was just for 5 minutes.

9:30 I get on to the train. The train left Rameshwaram on time. I board the train. My waiting list ticket is now an RAC ticket. I let my RAC partner sleep on the berth and I’m writing this on the TT’s chair next to the door of the train. The time is.. My mobile is again drained out. The TT just told me It’s 1 am. I’m still asking him for a berth and he’s till walking up and down saying he’s trying. I might as well sleep on the floor over a bedsheet or wake my RAC partner and tell him to share the berth.

I don’t know how I’ll sleep or if at all I would sleep. But tonight I’m glad for visiting Rameshwaram. I don’t know if a hindu’s life is incomplete without visiting Rameshwaram or if a nature lover would feel complete by visiting Rameshwaram. All I know is that is, by far one of my best holiday destinations. The only thing I regret is not going for a boat ride. But I will definitely next time. So is there a next time? I can bet my life on it.