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Route Focus: Valparai, Tamil Nadu to Thrissur, Kerala

The Sholayar river is not very heard of. It is just a river confined to a very small region that forms the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The river doesn’t even called by the same name in the two states. It is Sholayar in Tamil Nadu and Chalakudy in Kerala. The route that this river follows is not as forgettable as the river itself. From the lake that forms the source of the river all the way upto the place where it flowly calmly into the plains of Kerala, it has so many wonders to see. You can follow the flow of this river as you start from Valparai, a non-touristy hill station in the Western Ghats to Tamil Nadu, to Chalakudy, the town in Thrissur district, where the Western Ghats end and the plains of Kerala start. Continue reading

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City Focus: Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Just like Chhatrapati Shivaji for Marathas, Akbar for Mughals and Krishna Devaraya for Vijayanagara, the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan is considered to be a golden period for Tamil Nadu’s Chozha empire (also spelt as Chola empire). Thanjavur or Tanjore was the capital of the Chozhas for a long time and it flourished particularly during the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan. After a short period of uncertainty, the city underwent another cultural renaissance during the rule of the Maratha king Serfoji II. While Rajaraja Chozhan’s time was good for Tamil literature and Chozha architecture, Sanskrit was the main focus of Serfoji II.

Let’s learn more about one of India’s most ancient cities.

Geography of Thanjavur

Thanjavur is the headquarters of the district of the same name. The city is to the south of the five rivers that diverge from Cauvery river to the east of India’s oldest dam — Kallanai or Grand Anicut. The rivers are Kollidam, Cauvery itself, Kudamurutti, Kuruvadi and Vennar. The southern-most of the five, Vennar river is the closest to Thanjavur city.

Thus Thanjavur is part of a very fertile plain. Along with neighbouring Trichy (Thiruchirapally) district, Thanjavur district is one of the biggest contributors to Tamil Nadu’s agriculture sector. For this, both the districts have Cauvery river system to thank.

The land around Thanjavur is flat and one can see no hills or even undulations for several kilometres.

People of Thanjavur

The majority of Thanjavur city is populated by Tamil-speaking Hindus, mainly belonging to the Paraiyar and Vanniyar castes. Most of the people are employed in agriculture, government jobs, medicine, teaching and in private industries that mostly cater to agriculture, such as production of fertilisers, production of irrigation pipes, sugar extraction, husking, etc.

A small section of people in Thanjavur city are descendents of the Maratha rulers and their subjects. While fluent in Tamil, among their own they speak a dialect of Marathi which sounds significantly different from the one spoken in Maharashtra, north Goa and north Karnataka. But because of this option, several contractors from Maharashtra take up temporary work in Thanjavur.

Here are the best places to see in Thanjavur city.

Brihadeeshwara temple

Brihadeeshwara temple is the crowning glory of Thanjavur. It is one of the largest temples in India. The temple is one of the main reasons for Thanjavur to flourish as a tourist centre in Tamil Nadu. Brihadeeshwara temple is a UNESCO world heritage structure.

Brihadheeshwara temple

The temple was built during the time of Chozha emperor considered to be the greatest in the dynasty — Rajaraja Chozhan. The temple is also referred to as Rajarajeshwaram. The temple was finished in 1010 AD.

The vimana (main dome) of the temple is an extremely tall 16-storey tapering structure reaching a height of  66 metres (220 feet). The base of the vimana sits on an massive 30 sqm or 100 sqft base. Inside the vimana is the largest monolithic Shiva Linga in the world, measuring 8.7 metres (29 feet) in height. Hence the name Brihadeeshwara (the huge Lord).

The temple sits on a massive courtyard, thus making it the largest temple complex including only temple facilities, in the world. It ranks second behind Srirangam temple of Trichy in terms of area inside temple perimeter, but Srirangam includes the town and the residential area itself inside the temple gates.

Please note that similar to many major Tamil Nadu temples, the main sanctum is closed to public for darshan from 12 pm to 4 pm. So plan a visit either in the morning or in the evening. The temple gates and the courtyard complex remain open during those 4 hours.

Thanjavur palace

Thanjavur palace is the palace of the Maratha kingdom that ruled Thanjavur. The palace was built during the rule of Venkoji, who started the southern Maratha kingdom. Venkoji was a half-brother (brother through another mother) of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the most influential Maratha ruler. After an uncertain period for the Marathas which including plenty of turmoil with the neighbouring kingdoms and foreign invaders, king Serfoji II signed a peace treaty with the British, that forfeited all of Marathas’s conquests to the British, except for Thanjavur district remained under Serfoji II. With peace restored, Thanjavur was able to focus on literature and art yet again, and was peaceful until the annexation by the British in 1800.

Inside Thanjavur palace

The period of peace was a good one for the palace, especially for the palace’s main highlight, the Saraswati Mahal. This is the royal library that has nearly 50,000 volumes, some of them older than 1000 years. The library has collections from the time when paper was not used as a medium. There are collections in palm leaves and papyrus. The majority of the collection is in Tamil, followed by Sanskrit. The rest are collections written in languages no longer used in India, such as Pali, Magadhi, etc.

Saraswati Mahal library inside Thanjavur palace

Besides the library, the palace has other points of interest, such as the durbar hall with a statue of Serfoji II, open terraces, a central courtyard and a couple of museums. The museums show traditional Thanjavur artefacts such as the Thanjavur dancing doll and Thanjavur decorative plate.

A Thanjavur dancing doll. The neck keeps moving from side to side.

Mani Mandapam

Rajaraja Chozhan Manimandapam, which is also Rajaraja Chozhan museum

Towards the southern end of the city is a triangular park with a tower dedicated to Rajaraja Chozhan. The tower is 5 storeys high and tapering. The park itself has a statue of Rajaraja Chozhan sitting on a prancing horse. At the base of the tower is a museum showcasing Chozha architecture and their lineage.

Also around Thanjavur

It takes a complete sight-seeing day or even two to explore the Brihadeeshwara temple, Maratha palace and Mani Mandapam. But while you are staying at Thanjavur, you can take the opportunity to see some other places of interest, all of them within 50 km of Thanjavur, but in various directions.

Kallanai / Grand Anicut: is India’s first dam built on a river. The dam was built with stones during the time of Karikaalan Chozhan, the king who ruled the dynasty around 0 AD. The dam was built using the strength of several elephants.

Grand Anicut, one of the world’s first dams.

The dam is on the highway between Thanjavur and Trichy. So if you are headed to Thanjavur from Trichy (like we were), then you get to see this dam before reaching Thanjavur.

Thiruvaiyyaru: The name Thiruvaiyyaru can be broken down as ‘Thiru ai aaru’, which means the ‘five holy rivers’ in Tamil. Read the geography section of this post to learn more about the 5 rivers. This village itself is famous as the town where the Carnatic song composer Thyagaraja sat by the Vennar river and wrote Telugu songs mostly as a devotee of Lord Rama. Every year on Thyagaraja’s birthday as per the Hindu calendar, Carnatic music’s most famous practitioners assemble at the hall of what was once Thyagaraja’s house and recite the songs composed by him. These songs are referred to as ‘Kriti’s.

Swami Malai: On the highway between Thanjavur and Kumbakkonam, just 8 km before the latter, is the temple of Swami Malai, a temple dedicated to Lord Murugan. Swami Malai is one of the six ‘Aruppadai Veedu’s or ‘the six abodes of the Lord’. An interesting thing to observe in Swami Malai is the sixty steps on the stair case that lead to the sanctum. Just like the Chinese calendar repeats in a cycle of twelve years, each year dedicated to an animal (e.g. the pig year, the dragon year, etc), the Tamil calendar repeats in a cycle of sixty years, with each year given a name. Each name repeats once every 60 years. One complete cycle involving sixty years is known as a ‘Sangamam’. In Tamil Nadu, a person who turns sixty is celebrated with a ceremony, since he/she has seen one complete Sangamam.

The Tamil Sangamam year names are written beside each step. From top to bottom in this photo are: Bramhadi, Vegudhanya, Ishwara, Naadhu, Yuva, Bhava and Shrimukha.

Kumbakkonam: is a city about 50 km from Thanjavur, known for its various temples. Almost every locality in the city has one major historic temple. The city was built during the time of Rajaraja Chozhan and several temples were later added by successive rulers. At the centre of the town is a pond called the Mahamahan tank, where a festival happens every 12 years. During this festival, people from around Tamil Nadu take a bath in the holy pond to wash off their sins.

Dharasuran: is a village near Kumbakkonam and is home to the Airawateshwara temple, another temple with Chozha architecture. Of particular interest in this temple is the staircase of seven tunes or the ‘Sapta Swara’. Tapping or stomping on the stairs makes sounds, each of them in tune with the Indian musical scale ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni’. Unfortunately, due to structural damage, these stairs have been fenced off and are now closed to public.

The musical steps, sadly fenced off from the public.

Thiruvarur: was the capital of the Chozha empire during the time of Kulothungan I. It is famous for the Thyagaraja temple, a Shiva temple. The holy trinity of Carnatic music, the three composers, Shyama Shastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshithar, were all born in Thiruvarur. An annual temple chariot festival is held at Thiruvarur every April. The chariot is the largest and heaviest in Tamil Nadu.

Gangaikonda Chozhapuram: Rajendra Chozhan I defeated the Pala dynasty in present day Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. In victory, he collected some water from river Ganga. After his return, he constructed another Brihadeeshwara temple in a town about 70 km north-east of Thanjavur and to the north of Kollidam river, the northern-most of the five. The new temple was also called Brihadeeshwara temple, and the new town, that served as a capital, was named Gangaikonda Chozhapuram or ‘the town of the Chozha who won over Ganga’. Similar to Thanjavur temple, Gangaikonda Chozhapuram temple is also a UNESCO world heritage.

At Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Reaching Thanjavur city

Air: Thanjavur has an airstrip used by the Indian Air Force, but there are no commercial flights. The nearest airport is at Trichy with flights to major cities all over India, the most connected of them being Chennai and Bengaluru.

Rail: Thanjavur Jn is a railway station in the Southern Railway zone’s Trichy division, but is not on a frequently used route. There are two train routes on the route Chennai – Villupuram – Trichy – Madurai. One of them, the ‘main’ line is actually no longer the preferred route. Between Villupuram and Trichy on the main route, we come across several towns such as Neyveli, Chidambaram, Mayiladuthurai (Mayavaram), Kumbakkonam and Thanjavur before reaching Trichy. But because of dense population and the presence of several towns, the speed limit on the route is restricted.

Another route between Villupuram and Trichy is the the chord route, which is straighter, shorter and faster, with only one town, Virudhachalam on the way. Super fast express trains like Pandian Express, Vaigai Express, Duronto and Sampark Kranti prefer this route. The running time is two and a half hours shorter than the main route.

The main route, that passes through Thanjavur, is less favoured by the railways and used by slower trains and passengers. It’s advisable to check the train timetable to decide between a train that covers Thanjavur or rather a super-fast train from which you can alight at Trichy and take a bus to Thanjavur (40 km bus trip). The latter may actually save you time.

Road: Thanjavur is a major bus depot in Tamil Nadu. It is connected to all major cities, with the frequency of buses being particularly high for Trichy and Chennai. One can reach either of the two cities by air or rail and take a bus to Thanjavur.

Self-drive: If you are driving from the east of India, e.g. from north-eastern states, Assam, West Bengal, Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, then you should reach Chennai by joining the Kolkata – Bhubaneshwar – Vishakhapatnam – Rajahmundry – Vijayawada – Nellore – Guduru – Chennai coromandel route. Thereafter, you should use the GST (Grand State Trunk) highway via Chennai – Tindivanam – Villupuram – Ulundurpettai – Perambalur – Trichy highway. From Trichy, take the Trichy – Thanjavur highway.

If you are driving from Kerala, then take one of the following routes: Palghat – Coimbatore, Thrissur – Athirapally – Valparai – Pollachi – Coimbatore, Munnar – Theni – Dindigul. Trichy is about an hour from Dindigul, with both cities being part of Grand State Trunk Chennai – Madurai highway. From Coimbatore, you can use the Coimbatore – Tiruppur – Erode – Karur – Trichy highway. Having reached Trichy, you can drive to Thanjavur on the highway connecting the two cities.

From anywhere else in India, you should join the NH4, i.e. Mumbai – Pune – Satara – Kolhapur – Belagavi – Hubballi – Bengaluru – Hosur – Krishnagiri – Vellore – Kanchipuram – Chennai highway. E.g. People from north India / Delhi / Chandigarh can join at Pune or Mumbai. People from Karnataka can join at Hubballi or Bengaluru. The highway ends at Chennai, but you needn’t go there. Instead, take a detour from Hosur to take the following highways one by one: Hosur – Dharmapuri – Salem, Salem – Namakkal – Karur, Karur – Trichy, Trichy – Thanjavur.

Conclusion

Thanjavur is one of the most ancient cities in India, with its glorious days being during the rule of the Chozhas. After some turmoil, a second innings happened during the rule of the Marathas. Thanjavur continues to be an important city today, with high quality engineering and medical colleges and an Indian Army airstrip. But no other time was greater than the one with the Chozhas. You can travel back in time with just one look at the Brihadeeshwara temple.

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Man-made wonders: Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiri Mountain Rail also known as the ‘Ooty Toy train’ is one of the most exciting ways to explore the beautiful Nilgiri Hills. It is one of the steepest mountain railways in Asia and is steeper than its Himalayan counterparts (e.g. Shimla, Darjeeling). The terrain of Nilgiris is very demanding and it took the British 45 years to complete the Niligiri Mountain Railways. This may not sound like much until you are told that Darjeeling Hill Railway, which was the first Hill railway in India and built before Niligiri, was built in under 3 years.

Unlike the other three famous mountain railways of India (Shimla, Darjeeling and Matheran), which use narrow gauge, Nilgiri Mountain Rail runs on standard metre gauge tracks with adaptation for the mountains. Nilgiri Mountain Rail has rightly been declared as a ‘World heritage site’ by UNESCO in 2005.

A Brief History of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

In the 18th century when Udhagamandalam or Ootacamund was a favoured hill station for the British posted in Madras, Mysore & Travancore presidencies, access to the town was primarily through horse back or on ‘dollies’ (palanquins) carried by workers. The British commissioned the Swiss Inventor Riggenback to build a railway line. Work commenced in 1899. The initial route ran upto Coonoor, but was later extended to Fern Hill and further to Ooty in 1900’s. The locomotives used here have impressive strength and life span. The youngest locomotive of this train is about 50 years old and the oldest is about 80 years and still going strong.

The Train’s Unique Engineering

A unique thing about the Ooty toy train is that it ascends from an altitude of 1069 Feet to 7228 feet, i,e an impressive 6159 feet within just 45 kilometres, making it the steepest rail route in Asia. The excellent engineering capabilities that made this possible is very interesting and unique called Alternate Biting system or ABT, which is also known as rack and pinion system. It mimics the way a person climbs a ladder.

Rack rail between regular rails

Between the metre gauge rails is a pair to two closed placed rails that look like teeth. The teeth on the two rails are not matched, but out of step with each other. The third rail pair is called a rack. On the underside of the train is a wheel with teeth. The teeth on this wheel behave like human feet. They place themselves on the teeth on the rack and use them like the steps of a ladder, thus propelling the train upward. This teeth-bearing wheel is called a pinion. Regular metre gauge rails run for 4 km from the origin station, Mettuppalayam. The rack rail starts at Kallar railway station, where the train’s pinions grab onto it to start a steep ascent.

The train is powered by a steam locomotive between Mettuppalayam and Coonoor. In this section, on the way up, the steam locomotive is at the rear of the train to push it from behind. On the way down, the locomotive is on the front of the train, but is attached with its hood facing the train. Which means that the downhill-bound train is still being pushed uphill! This is because, the train hurtles downward purely due to gravity and the engine regulates the train’s speed, so as to prevent any collision or derailing.

A Nilgiri Mountain Railway train at a platform at Coonoor.

These days, the section between Coonoor and Ooty is powered by diesel locomotives. These locomotives were running on the Southern Railway’s metre gauge route between Chennai and Madurai. But with that route converted to broad gauge, the locomotives were shipped to Nilgiri Mountain Rail. Pinions were added to the underside of the diesel locomotives to use the rack rails.

The Rail Route of the Ooty Toy Train

Important railway stations on the route are:

  1. Mettuppalayam, where the train starts.
  2. Coonoor
  3. Wellington
  4. Lovedale
  5. Ooty

There are other stations such as Kallar, where the rack rail begins, Hill Grove, where the train stops for the steam locomotive to refill water to produce steam, Aravankadu and Ketti.

Nilgiri train taking a halt outside a tunnel

The railway line between Mettupalayam and Ooty is 46 Km long and takes 5 hours. Starting from the foothills at the Mettupalayam, on the banks of Bhavani river, the train passes through the plains for 4 kilometres. In the next 12 Km stretch it quickly climbs an impressive 4363 feet, and passes through nine tunnels. The entire stretch between Kallar and Ooty contains 16 tunnels with different curvatures and lengths, all in excellent condition.  The stretch also has 250 bridges large and small. It is a delight to cruise through this picturesque route in a cute little toy train, which travels at a maximum permissible speed of 13 kmph over the rack rail section and at a maximum of 30 kmph on the section with no rack.

The steam locomotive of the Nilgiri Mountain train hisses out plenty of steam at Hill Grove railway station as it prepares to leave.

Although, there are no scheduled down times for monsoon, unlike the Matheran Hill Railway in Maharashtra, the Nilgiri mountains receive very heavy rainfall from both the south west and north east monsoons. The train service may be temporarily suspended due to landslide or related hazards.

A heritage semaphore signal on the Nilgiri Mountain route. An arm parallel to the ground is the equivalent of a red ‘stop’ signal and the arm drooping down towards the ground is the equivalent of the green ‘go’ signal. At night, the arms are nearly invisible. The red and blue film glow in the dark. If these radiant films are vertically lined up, then the arm must be parallel to the ground, but if they are appear diagonal, then the arm must be down.

Traveller Tips

  1. Grab the left side of the coach on the way up and right side on the way down to get more views of the valley. On the other side you will mostly see mountain walls adjacent to the train.
  2. The best views can be seen from the early morning and early evening trains with several photo opportunities.
  3. Mettupalayam – Coonor section doesn’t just has the best views. This part of the journey is powered by the Swiss-made X Class steam locomotive, which is one of the oldest steam locomotives still running.
  4. Only one of the coaches is available for reservation in advance, e.g. through a website like IRCTC. The tickets for the other coaches must be bought at the station where you board. The tickets are sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. To get the tickets at the station, please be available at least 30 minutes to an hour before the departure of the train.
  5. Ooty station is officially called Udhagamandalam, after the city’s Tamil name. The British habitually failed to learn the correct pronunciation of Indian places. They pronounced and spelled the name as Ootacamund. It was shortened to Ooty and the name stuck. You will also see the shortened Tamil name Udhagai on shop boards and state transport buses.

Full Video

Here is a full video of our ride in the Nilgiri Mountain Rail toy train from Mettuppalayam to Coonoor.

Conclusion

Railways are a wonderful way to explore India, but mountain railways like the one in Nilgiri are especially spectacular. Along with enabling the tribes of India to access the facilities in the cities of the plains, they are an engineering marvel, a work of beauty and a tribute to the wonder that India is.

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City Focus: Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Long before the start of Indus Valley civilisation and the establishment of the Aryan race in India, the land to the south of the Vindhya mountains, which we we now call peninsular India or colloquially as south India, was inhabited by the Dravidians. The time origin of Dravidian history is unknown, but the Tamil language is one of the oldest continuously used languages in the world. While major ancient languages like Latin and Sanskrit have no confirmed native speakers today, Tamil continues to be used although now it is in modern form. At the centre of Tamil culture and also right in the centre of the state of Tamil Nadu is the city of Madurai.

Situated by the banks of the Vaigai river and with the four gopuras of the Meenakshi Amman temple dominating the skyline, Madurai is one of the oldest continuously habitated and functioning cities in the world. No one really knows for sure how old the city is. Madurai was supposedly the home town of the three ancient Tamil Sangams or a period of generation of scholars who worked on literature. The original works from the first and second Sangams that predates Aryan history have been lost. The stories of the third Sangam are available to us today. The oldest stories about Madurai may actually be lost in history since the technology of documentation was scarce and unreliable. Continue reading