A 10 day road trip in Tamil Nadu

A 10 day road trip in Tamil Nadu

December 31, 2018 11 By vandanamalaiya

Kannan and Vandana by Honda City – auto transmission

29 Sep – 8 Oct 2017 Tamil Nadu Road trip

Route: Bangalore –  Thiruvannamalai – Kanchipuram – Chennai- Pichhavaram – Chidambaram- Kumbakonam – Tanjavur – Madurai- Rameswaram – Srirangam – Bangalore ( Driving distance: 1800+ km)

Overview – We decided to go on this trip with minimal planning. We had a rough plan on the route. 2 dates were fixed. The day we had to be in Chennai and the one in Madurai. All else was open ended.

A lot of the architecture in Tamil Nadu resides in the temples. So we were mentally set for that. In many of the temples we spent most of the time looking at the architecture and that was the purpose. For darshan of the deity a lot more time would be required at each temple. The wait time for darshan in many of the temples is very high especially over the weekend. Other than a couple of temples, we did not go for darshan due to long queues.

Packing – Tamil Nadu is hot through the year. So we packed summer clothes, Sun cap and an umbrella besides toiletries and medicines.  I stuck mostly to Indian clothes as we were visiting a number of temples. We also packed a few bed sheets and some snacks just in case required.

Lodging: To have the flexibility of changing the plan – we booked hotels only a day in advance, in some cases on the same day. Some places we got lucky and got good hotels, a few other were just about okay and a couple were really bad. From the ones available on the day we picked the best rated on Tripadvisor or Makemytrip. We decided to book in 3 star where possible. However, the choices are limited in the smaller cities so we had to keep a non cribbing mindset and make the best of what was available on the particular day. On hind sight,  we should have ideally booked for the weekends in advance. We had carried bed sheets..just in case any place turned out really bad..but fortunately none of the hotels had that big a problem. In a nutshell, if I have to do this again in India I would do it the same way..because the gain of flexibility is way above the pain of average hotels.

A typical South India Meal

Food : Vegan food is not much of an issue – especially in South India. So we just ensured that the restaurant was hygienic and well rated ( on Tripadvisor mostly). We always bought bottled water. Neither of us has any stomach issues until the last day..when mine started groaning. I had reached by upper limit of taking in outside food. I must also say that towards the end of the trip I was longing for some home made north Indian food or at least food without tamarind!

Given the climate of Tamil Nadu, we had decided to do site seeing in the morning and evening and use the early morning or afternoon for driving. This worked out well for us but for breakfast which would not be ready by the time we left the hotel in the morning. A wise decision would be to opt out of breakfast at the hotel so you don’t pay for the same twice.

Road Condition: Tamil Nadu Roads are excellent at an overall level. Perhaps the least maintained was road from Krishnagiri to Thiruannamalai. Some of the roads that we took to temples in small villages etc were also bad in small patches. I would give a 4.5/5 for TN Roads.

We had two punctures in the whole trip. The first one in Kanchipuram and the second in Rameswaram. Both times, some good Samaritans came to the rescue. Being drivers by profession, they changed the wheel in minutes. Finding puncture repair shops took longer that the fixing itself. Other than this the trip was event-less.

29th Oct 2017 –  Bangalore to Thiruvannamalai ( (Driving distance : 216km)

Arunachala temple @ night

We started from Bangalore at 8:00 am and arrived at Thiruvannamalai at 12:30pm. We checked into hotel Arpanaa. The hotel is fairly new and hospitality was excellent. The room assigned to us also had the view of the hill, which was nice. We had lunch – south Indian Thaali at the hotel itself. The food was simple and tasty. As it was hot and most places we were interested in opened only at 4:00 pm we decided to relax in the room. We reached Ramana Maharishi Ashram at 4:30 or so. The ashram is serene. It had a lot of devotes from different countries, various parts of India all going about the place, meditating peacefully in their own way. Animals and birds exist in complete harmony. We came across peacocks, monkeys, and dogs inside the Dhyana Mantapam. After seeing the place we joined the evening chanting and aarti and left the place at about 6:30pm.

Our next stop was the temple. The Arunachala temple is huge, beautiful and well maintained. It is a must see. It takes around 2 hours to go around the temple especially if you want to spend some time on the architecture.  We had dinner at “Kannas’ .- Trip Advisor recommended….but food was not that good. Next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the hotel we started for Kanchipuram.

In case one is planning to do parikrama or Girivalam then additional 4 hrs need to be planned for the trek. The ideal time to complete this is after sunset and before sunrise as the temperatures are high during the day. We decided to skip it for want of an additional day for the same. If you have a driver driving, then you can still do it and relax as you proceed forward.

30th September – Thiruvannamalai to Kanchipuram (Driving distance: 201 km)

We started from Arpanaa Hotel at 9:00 am and drove to Gingee Fortwhich is about 38k and 45 min from the hotel. The fort opens only at 10:00am ( we discovered that of most places in Tamil Nadu). The climb to the fort is steep and the steps are un-even. I stopped at the first arch and Kannan went up half way but decided to abandon the climb further up due to lack of company. The place is worth a stop over even if you cant make it to the top. The round trip from the base to the fort would take a couple of hrs.

Sri Ranganathesvara Temple

The next stop was Sri Ranganathesvara Temple, Singavaram in Villupuram district.  It is a rock cut cave temple. The climb is steep and at least 100 steps.  We had to wait almost an hr for the darshan as the alankar was elaborate due to some festival.

Mandagapattu Cave temple

We drove to the Mandagapattu 7th Century Cave temple next. The road is not that good and it is a very slow 27km ride. The  place is not visited by many but not worth leaving if you have a couple of hrs in hand. This area is known for groundnuts. When we entered the village looking for the cave temple we came across a groundnut field and saw groundnuts being laid out to dry. We walked to the small houses next to the farm and asked them if they could sell us some. They informed us that they were not the owners of the field ; however, they had some ground nut at home and would be happy to give us. When the young lady went inside she realized that it was not much. She asked us to wait stepped into the neighbour’s house – asked them if they had any, got it – washed them and put them in a packet for us. All this while we were protesting and requesting her to let it be. When we tried paying they refused to take the same.

Utthiramerur temple was our next stop. The climb is again a bit steep. Nevertheless, the temple architecture made it worthwhile. You get a very lovely view from the top. So climb to the top most level is worth it.

We drove to Kanchipuram next. Our first stop , 6 km before the city was at KailashanathaTemple at 5:30pm. The overall carving especially the Yalli pillars in this temple are very well preserved.

After spending 30 minutes here we headed to the hotel Tanishq Park. The hotel is on the highway. Due to the long weekend and our last minute approach the hotels in the city were all taken. The hotel is poorly maintained.

We still checked in and after refreshing ourselves started for Ekambareswarar Temple.


Ekambareswarar Temple

The temple has excellent architecture. The pillars are beautifully carved. The lighting however is done poorly and it is impossible to get any pictures without the light hitting your lens. I wish we had planned it for the morning or seen it in bright day light.  Since we had seen this temple earlier this was a refresh trip. But for anyone visiting for the first time a couple of hrs to enjoy the architecture is a must.

After spending about an hr at the temple we headed for Saravana Bhavan for dinner. The restaurant has parking and the food served was good. Dinner done, we headed back to the hotel.

1st October – Kanchipuram to Chennai (Driving distance : 113 km)

We checked out at 7:00am and went to Kamakshi Amman Temple. 

At this hour the temple looked beautiful.   The temple tank is also huge and a walk around the temple gives a good idea about the architecture. We did not go for darshan as the queues were long.

As we were getting into the car we found that the rear wheel on the driver’s side was punctured. We were carrying trunk load of stuff for my niece in Chennai so extracting the jack and the spare tyre itself was painful. We decided to seek help from a driver and Kannan went out in search and soon returned with 2. They replaced the tyre in less than 10 minutes. No shops were open so we decided to have breakfast before hunting for a puncture repair shop. Breakfast was at Saravana Bhavan. Following which we got the repair done.

One of the beautifully carved pillar in Vardaraja Temple

The next stop was Vardaraja temple. We decided first to visit the mantapam with 100 exquisitely carved pillars. This is the only place where we paid a token fee to see a piece of architecture! Each pillar is uniquely carved and well preserved. However, I wish they washed the pillars with a pressure pump once in a while to remove the accumulated dust. One of the mantapam not only has a great architecture but also the painting on the ceiling is well preserved. Though we had reached the Vardaraja temple by 10:00 am, the sun was so bright that getting good pictures was impossible. So the recommend one to visit the Vardaraja temple first thing in the morning

I did not want to leave Kanchipuram without visiting the Jain temple. The Thiruparuthikundram temple was about 7 km away but due to bad roads took us almost 20 minutes to reach.

The temple was closed so we had to find the care taker, a 75 yr old woman to open the gates for us and allow us entry. After a bit of waiting she came over and let us in. There are very few Jain families left in the village so the temple is opened only when required.  The paintings on the ceiling of the temple are beautiful. The temple is not very well maintained and the care taker expressed concern about the lack of funds and devotees required for the upkeep.

It was post noon and we had to leave for Chennai. After a short stop to pick up some food we got back on the road. We reached Chennai around 3:30pm. Offloaded my nieces stuff at her apartment and after a coffe together left for Triplicane.

We were in Chennai to attend a ceremony on 2nd. There was no plan for sight seeing.

3rd October – Chennai to Chidambaram via Pichhavaram ( Driving Distance : 214km)

We started from Chennai at about 6:30 am to be able to beat the morning office traffic. We drove on the very scenic East Coast road. At 9:00 am we stopped at a restaurant in Pondicherry. I wish we has a couple of days to do Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry again. These two places are beautiful and while we have visited them multiple times I would not mind doing it again. Well, after a quick breakfast we were on the road again.

We reached Pichhavaram at 11:30 am. Bought the tickets for a 2 hr boat ride into the Mangroves. We got a very enthusiastic young boatman who showed us around with great interest. He offered to take us to the interiors ( for a fee of course). It was absolutely amazing. This was the first time Kannan or I were seeing a mangrove. It was extremely hot and we were thankful to our boatman for having suggested to get along our cap and umbrella. We did not see any birds. For that one must go to Pichhavaram in winter months – like late Nov to early Jan. However, that is also the rainy season and the boat rides are taken up only if it is safe.

By 2:00 pm we were back on the shore and started off immediately for Chidambaram. We checked into the hotel on VGP Street. Went for lunch at a nearby restaurant and came back and crashed for an hour.

Nataraja Temple

At 5:00 pm, we got ready and walked to the Nataraja temple. The temple is beautiful. Architecture is great. The place unfortunately is very poorly maintained. It was a disappointment in that sense. We spent a couple of hours in the temple and left around 7:00pm.

There is nothing much else in the city to see. After spending an hour walking around to get some sense of the local life, went for a dosa dinner at a south Indian restaurant close to the hotel.

4th October – Chidambaram to Kumbhakonam via Tarangambadi ( Driving Distance :143 km)

Poompahar

We checked out of the hotel at 7:00 am and drove to Poompahar.  While there is not much to see, we did not want to miss this landmark town. It is a small detour off the highway and we were there quite early so walked around a bit. Saw the light house, the beach and museum from outside. We did not feel like waiting until 10:30 am for the place to open. The place looked so poorly maintained that we lost interest. The detour road is not all that good.

We then headed to Tarangambadi ( Danish Fort)

We were there by 9:45 am.  The street leading to the fort has lovely old houses and churches which have retained the old Dutch charm. Since the fort and museum were still closed we walked around and took pictures. It is beautiful. You are transported into a completely different civilization. There is an old bunglow which has been taken over by Neemrana Hotel group and converted into a hotel. Would be a good place to stay for a night if one plans to.

The fort opened at 10:30 am. We were at the gates before time and the guard let us in. The fort by itself is much smaller than most of  the forts in India. The place was fairly well kept but for an over flowing bin. There is a small museum inside which gives some insight into the life of the people who lived there. The view of the sea from the fort is breath taking. After spending about 45 minutes there we started for Swamimalai and checked to our hotel – Indeco at noon.

We had read about Indeco Swamimalai and were keen to stay here. So, were fortunate to get a booking with a one day notice. The hotel is a small village created away from the city. The hospitality is impeccable and the food excellent. I would strongly recommend a stay in this hotel for anyone visiting Kumbakonam and/or Tanjavur. The rooms are huts with all the modern amenities and traditional décor.

The lunch was ready and we were hungry. It was a nice vegetarian thali and we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch. The whole place including the dining hall is like a museum. I must have clicked a hundred pictures. It would be a good idea to just stay at this place for a day without any other plans. It’s a lovely resort to unwind.

Nageshwaran Temple

Though it was hot, we had a lot to cover so we started off for Swamimalai after lunch and a bit of relaxing. After visiting the temple and a couple of brass shops we reached Nageshwaran & Sarangapani temple at 4:00pm and spent about 45 minutes.

The next stop was Darasuram / Airavateswarar temple which is known for its architecture. A must visit place for architecture buffs. We spent a couple of hours. Daylight is essential for really enjoying this place.  It is very well maintained. A huge complex where one can spend 2-3 hrs easily.

We then drove back to the hotel. The dinner at Indeco was authentic local cooking.

5th Oct 2017  Swamimalai to Tajavur to Madurai ( Driving distance: 213 km)

After a very tasty and sumptuous south Indian breakfast at Indeco we started for Tanjavur at  8:00 am Tanjavur is just about 40 km from Swamimalai. Before you enter Tajavur there are a couple of old Vishnu temples. These are in the Thiru Thanjaimaamani temple complex. Kannan wanted to visit these and we stopped for darshan. Nice peaceful temples with no crowd.

We then proceeded to Brihadeeshwara or Big Temple. The temple is huge and an architectural marvel. We took a guide which was a waste because he wanted to rush us through the place and more interested in taking our pics than really telling about the place.

In addition to the carvings, the temple has a huge number of old paintings. While some of them are well preserved, many have been destroyed by people. The next stop was Thanjavur Palace. Not many tourists go to the palace or the library. Both, excellent though. The palace is beautiful but maintenance is average.  The architecture, old statues in the gallery, paintings all worth the visit.  Excellent collection of books on display in the library. First time I saw so many hand drawings of human anatomy. The visit ended with an audio visual on Tanjore in their mini theatre.

By the time we got out it was past 2:00 pm and both of us were hungry. I searched for vegetarian restaurants near me and a vegetarian Chettinad restaurant popped up on top. The ratings were also good. So, we parked and went for it. The restaurant is a mess on the first floor of a building and while it lacked ambiance the food was authentic, hygienic and tasted excellent. After lunch we left for Madurai.

The route to Madurai is beautiful. The roads are excellent. It was raining so the drive was very pleasant. We decided to go directly to Meenakshi temple. While we had seen it in the past we wanted to visit it after it received the award for being the cleanest temple in India. The route to the temple parking is extremely crowded and from the market. Diwali shopping had added to the numbers I guess. The temple had actually been cleaned up – well most of it though we found sections that were still dusty. The main cause of dirt in the temples are oil/ghee lamps that people burn inside or anywhere and vibhuti which devotees dump on a pillar as soon as they exit the sanctorum. While it was less than the other temples we had visited so far..there was some vibhuti here also. Given the queues, we opted out of trying for a darshan. We went to the 1000 pillar mantapam. The place was almost empty and we could take our time to look around. A must place to see when you visit Madurai. We checked into the hotel and went for the dinner to a place couple of blocks down the road.

6th Oct 2017  – Madurai to Rameshwaram (Driving distance:  193km)

We were in Madurai for Varun’s wedding. The venue was just half a km away. So we got ready and reached the venue by 7:30 am just in time for Kashi yatra. We attended the wedding function, had lunch, went to the hotel, changed and started for Rameswaram  around 1:30pm. We stopped at Ramanathpuram for a coffee and continued to Rameswaram. We were keen to see the sunset at Danushkodi so drove there directly. Unfortunately, the entry to Dhanushkodi is closed at 5:00 om and we reached there around 5:15pm and had to turn back! We visited the Kodan Rama temple of the way back. Returned to Rameswaram and checked into our hotel. The hotel called Ashoka is fairly new and the rooms and service was good. We checked in and immediately left for Rameswaram Temple which was walking distance from the hotel. After spending about an hr, walked along the beach and walked back to the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel itself.

7th Oct 2017 Rameswaram to Trichy via Chettinad ( Driving distance: 306 km)

We got up early and drove to Dhanushkodi. Reached there at about 6:45 am. We decided to go directly to the beach. The water is absolutely clean. Bathing is prohibited and you can at best wet your feet. The walk on the beach going upto the tip and back is wonderful. The sea shows a different temperament on both sides. Another observation was the kind of shells one finds is different in different stretches.

After about an hour we got back to the car..only to find the back wheel tyre punctured. One helpful driver assisted us with the replacement and we drove back to Rameswaram. After breakfast and bath we checked out at 10:00am and got the tyre repaired. There were two more places to be visited before we left Rameswaram –  the Ram zarukka temple and  President Abdul Kalam’s  Memorial. 

The temple is on a hill and you get an excellent view of the surrounding areas from there. APJ’s memorial is a neat piece of work. Simple, adorned with numerous paintings of him by the same artist and some of his belongings. A must visit place for APJ fans.

Next on our list was Chettinad. We had heard and read so much about the houses in this region that visiting it was a must.

Our first stop was Devakottai . Next we drove to Karaikudi. Had lunch at Jainika hotel and drove to Attangudi Palace

We wanted to see the Chettinad Palace and with help of Google drove there only to learn that the permission has to be taken from Chennai!! We were keen to see a Chettinad house so enquired around a bit and came to know that there is one house which is open to visitors. The care taker was away but a young boy took us around. The grandeur of the house that had 4 sections for 4 brothers is beyond imagination in current times in large cities. The place is like a haunted village full of un-occupied palatial homes. Would have been a very rich town once upon a time. We also visited the Chettinad Museum. Had coffee at …. Which is a house converted into a hotel now.

Next stop was Sittavasalam. I had read about an ancient Jain temple there and wanted to visit the same. One has to get off the highway from Pudukottai. There are sign boards to help but once you reach the place where you need to park you are completely lost. No one seems to know where the temple is. We decided to walk around and find. We climbed on the stone hill and after walking some located a Ganesha statue. Just as we were about to give up Kannan decided to go around and check the east phase of the hillock and the remains f the temple were there. It is a small status about a foot tall. It was an adventure none the less and we got to see great sunset.

It was dark by the time we got down. By the time we reached the Hotel in Srirangam it was nearly 8:00 pm. The hotel King Paradise was horrible and after escalation with the travel agency and 3 room changes we were able to settle into a room AC for which also stopped working by mid – night!!
We had lunch at a restaurant nearby and went to bed by 10:00

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8th Oct 2017  Srirangam to Bangalore ( Driving distance : 241 km)

We checked out at 7:30 and went straight to Srirangam temple. Unfortunately, darshan was not possible as the morning darshan was over and the next darshan would open only at 9:30. Being weekend the queues were already long. So we decides to see the temple’s lovely architecture. Went around the place and started for Bangalore at 9:00am. We stopped for bunch at Anand Adyar Bhawan after crossing Namakkal and reached home by 4:45pm

Lessons from the trip

You don’t need a perfect plan for a great holiday.

We had a rough plan on the route to take and places we wanted to visit. We did not try to plan how much time we would spend in each place. The idea was to be flexible about adding or dropping a place or two if required based on the pace.

We booked hotels on the move a day in advance..sometimes on the same day. As a result some of the experiences turned out to be great, some average and some poor. We have had the same experience even after planning a lot.

We created the list of places to see on the move based on available time. As a result we ventured into towns and villages inside which we would have not seen had we stuck to the high level plan we started out with.

When you share the load the journey becomes simple. Enjoy the journey.

Both of us drive so we took turns. Neither drove more than 2 hours at a stretch. Kannan likes to drive under structured road and traffic conditions, I thrive in chaos. We chose the stretches or switched based on the situation.

We chose to do most of the driving during the day. This was we could enjoy the journey also and not just the destination. Also, neither of us enjoys driving in the night.

Don’t hesitate to seek out help. The world is full of wonderful people.

We had two punctures on this trip. Neither Kannan nor I are strong and skilful at changing tyres. So we decided to request for help from drivers we could find in the area. For them, it was a matter of minutes.

While google is of great help with directions it sometimes gets confused especially when there are one ways and diversions. Instead of going around in circles we chose to ask people for directions.

In one of the places where we had entered a village looking for a cave temple we came across a ground nut field and saw ground nuts being laid out to dry. We walked upto the small houses next to the farm and asked them if they could sell us some. They informed us that they were not the owners of the field however they had some ground nut at home and would be happy to give us. When the young lady went inside she realised that it was not much. She asked us to wait stepped into the neighbour’s house – asked them if they had any, got it – washed them and put them in a packet for us. All this while we were protesting and requesting her to let it be. When we tried paying they refused to take the same.

Enjoy what you can. Don’t regret what you miss out.

On a trip like this where you might be visiting multiple places it may not be possible to see/experience everything that you would have liked to. The schedules for places often clash and you might have to prioritize. Sometimes, like it happened to us for Danushkodi..you may just not be able to make it on time. You can either feel upset about what you had to forgo and spoil your day or accept it and switch to enjoying the next destination.

Enjoy the local food. It is easier to find than the food you might be used to normally. We stuck to the local cuisine in all the places. While it is not very different for Kannan, I am not used to so much south Indian food.  Having local cuisine helped me understand the local culture a bit and also kept us from wasting time looking for specific food every place we went.