Luckily, we can, because Honda Cars India took us along on a “Drive to Discover” trip on the same stretch. Fasten your seat belts and join us for the ride!
The road from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari is a superb meandering track that doesn’t allow for too many driving antics. You are bullied by KSRTC buses and honked out of your senses, with procession-after-thronging-procession of pilgrims dancing on your heads! But keep your spirits up and this 90 km/three-hour stretch will unveil plenty of colour and quirky sights.
The town of Nagercoil is about 70 km from Trivandrum. Upto here, the traffic is crazy. But cross Nagercoil, and everything changes. In fact, it gets really good. The cities disappear, giving way to lush green, open valleys. The noise melts away. The next few kilometres breeze by in a cavalcade of banana fields and lakes studded with water lilies. It’s a feast for weary senses.
Kanyakumari, with its statuesque beacons – the Vivekananda-Rock Memorial and the towering idol of Thiruvalluvar, stands in dramatic contrast to the blue seas. Through a clutter of shanties, vendors and devotees, drive down to the ferry docks to get an
uninterrupted sighting of the endless waters. This is the one place on the mainland with both a sunrise and sunset view; gingerly amble through the rocks eastward of the ferry for your sunrise; go west along the coast, out of town, only a couple of kilometres and settle down for a quiet sunset at the Hidden Twin beach.
After lunch at Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, our night halt, is still 300 km away. We head north towards Tirunelveli, and the dual carriageway is perfect for speed testing our cars. On the left, silhouetted against the evening sun, are the Eastern Ghats. The landscape is flat, the vista endless and windy. Dotted with windmill fields and salt pools, this part of the journey whizzes past, throttle on floor. We merge on to the East Coast Road (ECR) at Kulathoor.
The ECR has character; a blaringly confused one: single-way thoroughfare, breathtaking when it’s by the sea, intriguing through villages, scenic in the greens, curvy at all the right places and all the wrong ones; blindly misplaced speed bumps, uneven surfaces, plenty of our four-legged friends, vehicles big and small: simple, honest beauty and utter chaos! The thousand voices of the ECR all vie for the driver’s attention, yet for those-who-drive-for-pleasure they blend to form the sweet-song of a river; which simply needs to be negotiated with alertness.
Pit stop at Ramanathapuram. Refuel, rechai. 57 km from here, across India’s first ever and now second longest sea bridge, the ‘Pamban Bridge’, on an island lies Rameshwaram. A small, dusty settlement with the Ramanathaswamy Temple as centerpiece, it draws attention to the sprightly, contrasting colours of Tamil Nadu villages. I hear the houses are painted keeping ‘Vastu’ in mind.
Some 20 kms along, a crooked, spindly finger points to Sri Lanka. It reminds you of Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco; how the tectonic Indian plate must’ve rumbled, tossing up Ceylon! This long stretch leads you to the Kodhanda Ram Kovil Temple, where if you’re brave enough to climb the rusty, abandoned watchtower, you’ll catch an enchanting glimpse of a fabled little town.
At Dhanushkodi, India has one of the smallest land borders in the world with Sri Lanka; just 45 meters long. It was a flourishing tourist and pilgrimage town with regular ferries to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, which is just 30 km away. The cyclone of December 1964 destroyed it completely, leaving it with a stark, still-startled look. The Dhanushkodi railway station, post-office and church present a haunting somberness. Fishermen and tchotchke sellers occasionally stay here in makeshift huts.
From the parking stand at Dhanushkodi you’ll need to hire a 4×4 jeep or a minibus, usually 100 per head, to take you about four km along the coast to the town ruins. The drive is an adventure with the vehicle negotiating soft sand and sloshing through sandy waterbed. Forlorn vestiges of boats and huts half-sunk in the sand peek at you. See if the driver will let you ride atop the roof!
About a kilometer further is the tip of the crooked finger. A narrow sliver of sand leads you to a veritable dagger head. Take a few moments to stand here and listen to the ocean; watch the azure waters. Serenity at its deepest…
At this ‘land’s end’ terminus, known as Arichulmunai or Erosion Point, begins the chain of rocks and islets known as Rama Setu. These lead approximately 30km across the Palk Strait to Mannar Island on the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka. My cellphone flashed an ‘International Roaming’ warning here!
Like the prodigal son, the ECR returns: to torment with wayward traffic, blinding high beams, sudden pedestrians, random cattle. Pondicherry’s French Quarter is a seafront promenade, with stately colonial mansions on leafy French style boulevards, high garden walls, arched windows and elaborate gates.
Peppered with boutiques, bistros, lounges, pubs and cafes, it is European indeed. However, there is the native Tamil Town which coexists with its ‘talking streets’ – so called because of their intimate scale and interactive nature. Connecting elements like the thinnai (public portico with benches for visitors) make the entire street stretch homogeneous.
A quick dip into the universally conscious, verdurous philosophy of Auroville, and you are ready to reconnect with the ECR, which now surprises you with a comfortable familysized width, smooth surface and tree lined beauty while maintaining its core personality of chaos!
We hand over our cars at the acclaimed Taj Fisherman’s Cove, a splendid beach resort outside Chennai.
This article by Anhad Varma was published in the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of Travel Secrets Magazine.
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