Friday, January 17, 2014

Chidambaram and Pitchavaram

I’d been planning to revisit the mangrove forests of Pitchavaram for quite a while. After having visited the place 4 years back in the month of August, I planned to visit the place again in winters as the sun was a bit too harsh during my previous visit. Also the best time to visit the place is from October to February. So we finalised our plan during Pongal holidays. As Chidambaram is on the way, we also decided to pay a visit at the famous Thillai Nataraja Temple there.

Me and Soumya reached Chidambaram on 14th at 1 by train. The temple was yet to open at 4. We had a good 3 hours to while away. So we spent one good hour having lunch at Vandayar hotel, which is highly recommended for the food, and another 2 hours at the roadside shops near the temple.

At 4 finally, the gates to the shrine opened. Dedicated to Lord Nataraja, this ancient temple of the Cholas is unique, not only is it devoted solely to the art of Bharatanatyam, but also it is one of the rare temples where Shiva is represented by an idol rather than the customary lingam. Spread over an area of 40 acres with a gopuram on each side, the temple is distinguished by five sabhas or courts.

The main entrance, the eastern gopuram is an imposing figure. 40.8 m high, it has 108 dance poses of the Ananda thandavam, Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance, engraved on it. As we enter the sanctorum, parallel rows of pillars make way to idols of Lord Shiva, Lord Murugan and Ganesha.

The temple of goddess Shivakamasundari, consort of Shiva, is situated on the west side of the Shivaganga tank. A flight of steps leads down into its courtyard. The goddess is worshipped here as the J├▒ana Shakti: the energy and power of wisdom.  

It took a good 40 minutes for us to cover the entire temple. Once we were done, we decided to go to Pitchavaram by Auto rickshaw instead of going by bus. The auto driver who first brought us from the railway station to the temple agreed to take us there for a reasonable Rs. 300. That was the best auto rickshaw ride ever.

A half hour ride under open skies and by open fields was a delight. At the end of the hour long ride, we reached the Saradharam eco tourist resort in Pitchavaram, where we had booked our room. It is the only resort available there. The other option for visitors is to stay at Chidambaram and drive down to Pitchavaram
We reached the resort at 6, right in time to catch sunset. There were hardly two people managing  the resort. Maybe because it was Pongal. The only good thing about the resort was an open air restro-bar facing the back waters and mangroves. The man taking our order himself went to the kitchen to prepare our order. And to give credit where it’s due, did a decent job.

After a good night’s sleep, we finally headed for the mangrove forest in the first batch that starts at 8 am. Pitchavaram is the world’s second largest mangrove forest spanning 1100 hectares. The options provided by the tourism department to explore the forests are rowboats and motorboats.  Rowboats for one hour cost two people Rs.150 and Rs.300 for 2 hours. Motorboats have longer trips for up to 4 hours. But we went for two hour ride on a row boat as they take you through narrow canals.
Our boatman asked for an extra Rs.300 to take us through a ‘longer route’. Even though we knew he was bluffing, we agreed. While travelling, it’s always in our best interest to keep the locals happy. From the shore, he rowed for a good 20 minutes to enter the forest through a canal. Once we entered the canal, he rowed slowly and told us the names of each mangrove species by their scientific names!
The forest is also home to many birds, including migratory birds. The boatman told us that most of the birds leave early in the morning and return at night. Which is ironic considering the timings that the forest is open to visitors.  The boatmen told us that the only animals that lived in the forest were foxes and seals. They lived off crustaceans and fishes they could find in water.

He told us there were no snakes but later on we found a dead snake lying in water. To which the boatman told us that it was a freshwater snake that died on reaching the estuary as it couldn’t survive the saltwater. Another interesting aspect of many mangroves that we got to see was aerial roots that stem from the water to breath.

The ride was a peaceful two hours with just the sound of the oars splashing on water and birds chirping around as we made our way through canal after canal. At the end of the two hour long ride, the serene atmosphere leaves you hoping for more. An hour after the brief rendezvous with nature, we were on the next bus to Chidambaram and then from there, back to Chennai.