The meandering roads through the delta

Not many people seemed to have heard of Konerirajapuram. "I dont know, but have you been to all the Navagraha temples first?", some of them offered. Going around in Ambassador cars from temple to temple which probably differed from each other in a minor change of deity was not why I had come here. I politely declined and proceeded to ask someone else.

The ancient lands of the Cauvery delta have a long story to tell. Geographically speaking, the famous south-Indian river rushes with quite a pace through most of Karnataka, hastily bubbling through forests, occasionally missing a footing and heading down some deep (and beautiful) waterfalls but slowing down now and then. Things change as she nears the east coast of Tamil Nadu: Past Tiruchirappally (or Trichy, or Trichnopoly - if you prefer the old British one), the river slows down considerably and breaks into innumerable distributaries, each enabling the life and livelihood of the farmers in the region. The Cauvery delta, one of the largest and most fertile regions in the south, is straight out of a casual train-travellers' dream - with its endless fields of paddy, sugarcane, plantain and more.

Hastily looking up passenger train timings, and with a bit of googling and furtive sneaks at strangers' flickr albums, I had made up my mind about a few places I should visit over the weekend. And there I was in Kumbakonam, already tired after the last day and a half, debating whether to skip the last leg of the journey or not.

"Take the country road going right from S. Pudur, flanked by lush fields of the delta on either side.. Delightful duck filled canals abound in this pastoral heaven." These were the words off this one trip report on indiamike forums that prompted me to quit mulling over it, haul the bag and leave for the place. Konerirajapuram was 25 kms away, on the road to Karaikkal (onward to Nagapattinam, etc) via Thirunageswaram. I was a few hours away from my mental 'start off to Trichy via train atleast by NOW' deadline, and deciding not to tempt fate, hired a taxi.

Kumar and his Indica were instructed to do a leisurely pace throughout the road, since we were in no hurry, and more importantly, since I wanted to take in the sights. After all, how often does one get to see where most of one's food comes from. Kumbakonam is not a very large town, and the buildings along this road petered out quickly to hay-thatched huts with frail wooden fencing. The harvest, as I'd learn later, had been over the past few days or weeks, and the air was still heavy with the smell of hay, as were the roads. Every ten minutes or so we would pass a large haystack which was either standing in the sun (hence doing justice to the old adage) or was being transported in tractors and trucks. Quite a lot of cows looked up at the passing car and went back to their affable business of chewing the cud or whatever vocation it is that cows occupy themselves with all day.

The road was true to its word. A strict two-lane, with trees painted in zebra stripes (as they are often, in TN state highways), it wound and meandered its way like the river, through miles and miles of fertile cropland. We passed a million shades of green and golden brown over the humble span of 20kms, often yielding to houses and brightly painted tiny temples. Some of them with ponds of their own.
At S.Pudur, we followed the road leading right. This one was narrower but more scenic. After a short while we stopped by an old gentleman who had taken his cow for a drink in a canal. 
"Natarajar koyila? Go straight, and once you come to a bus stop, turn left onto the road that leads inside". We came upon this bus stop a few kilometres down the road - a deep blue, decorated shelter located under the shelter of a huge tree. The road leading left was even more narrow, wide enough for a tractor and a bicycle perhaps, to pass each other without a fight.

By now we were bang in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any decently sized town and surrounded by farmland for as far as the eye could see. Three kilometres or so inside, the road suddenly split into two at right angles, each encircling a pond and rejoining at the other end, in front of the temple.
It was 3.30 or so in the afternoon and there were a few people in the temple. An elderly gentleman told me that they would open the main sanctum only by 5.30. Damn, I thought. I dropped the name of the priest, Gnanaskandan, which I'd gleaned from the trip report from the indiamike forum and that seemed to work. The head priest, was just coming out of a room in the side of the temple grounds and agreed to show me the Nataraja statue after I told him of how I had heard of the place and had come all the way. The bronze statue is not the main deity, apparently.. The Nataraja is located in an enclosure in the side of the sanctum, and is almost one and a half times the height of the average male. The idol, which he claims, was made in panchaloha or a penta-alloy, was completely camouflaged in inches-thick flower garlands after an abhishekam which had happened in the morning.

The temple was built under the supervision of the Queen of Chola land at that time. There's an interesting fresco located high up on the wall of the temple: It shows a British official making an offering to the deity through the queen. This was the first painting I'd noticed with the British in them, and it was a fine job - right from the assumed superior air about the queen and the looks of surprise (or approval) from her ministers to the swords and handlebar moustaches of the angrezi soldiers. It was a minute of severe flashback to the lines in history books.

Having thanked the priest for his kind gesture, I strolled around the village. It was one of those hot and sleepy afternoons where man and animal alike take a well deserved afternoon siesta. The pond bed had completely dried, and the glare from the afternoon sun was getting a bit too much. "There's no water at all pa.. no rain last year also. See that opening over there, to the side of the wall - the water would come through the canals in the field to the pond", said the old woman who had seen me observing it. I could only manage a "Ah indha varshamaavadhum nalla mazha peyyatunga..". Let's hope there's a good shower this year.

Walking around with a camera hanging around your neck is never a pleasant thing when you want to blend into any surroundings. Fortunately, that can precisely be some of the best conversation starters too. For, in a while I had gathered the curiosity and friendship of a few boys who were out plucking citrons (Naarthangai in tamil). And when you're a newcomer in a village and surrounded by boys, you're treated like a special guest. Vignesh, Ramu and the rest of their gang fed me with all sorts of information, for the city-dweller in me must have made himself seem like a perfectly ignorant fool in these settings. Some of this info was pretty bizzare though. Like the way they hung the heart of a dead cow in sacks on the huge banyan tree by the side of the road. But it made sense. Something that was part of the family - it made sense that a part of it was mated with another sacred object (the tree) for ever, and as a token of remembrance. It just seemed natural to the boys, such that they didn't have a ready reply when I instinctively blurted "Oh.. but why?". But it made sense, from their point of view.

"The paddy was harvested yesterday. The machines do it, cutting it in the back, yes", they nod enthusiastically as I describe the combined harvester and ask them if that was the thing. And on a lark we jumped past the tiny irrigation canal, into the field.

It was surreal. Having been brought up in a completely urban environment, the only proper agricultural or pastoral setting I'd been in was restricted to a few times in my childhood and pretty much none beyond. And now standing there, gentle cows to one side, and harvested paddy all around, while the wind played around with the tall stalks of the yet to be cropped fields in the distance, I thought for a fleeting moment of the traffic and noise that accompanied my desk job and wished I didn't have to go back for a while.

"Come again anna! Come during the festival, it's nice to see the temple then", said the boys as I bid goodbye.
"I shall, definitely! I loved your place!" And I meant it.

For Konerirajapuram had earned its place in my heart as one of those faraway lands that would crop up during moments of boredom in the office, reminding me of its fields and streams and the simple people of the delta.


Afternoon in Arsikere

"A.S.K", I told the man as I handed him three ten rupee notes at the unreserved ticket counter. "Ask-aa?" he said, as he punched away with two fingers on a well worn out keyboard and handed me the piece of curved paper.

Arsikere - a small town of mostly railway prominence, and a journey of 166 kms out of Bangalore. To me, the getaway meant a good break from the regular SilkBoard-Madivala-Electronic City mayhem, and a Saturday spent clickety-clacking through rural Karnataka landscape seemed perfect.

The morning passenger to Hubli was yet to be brought into the platform. A burly man in charge of handling over the caution orders for the run upto Arsikere was catching up on the sleep he missed by resuming where he left off, on the bench on the platform. The express to Mysore was cooling off after a nocturnal run from Mayiladuthurai. The sweater clad homeless man lingered around near the warmth of the diesel locomotive.

At around eight the shrill horn sounded and we pulled off. Entering or exiting metro cities via is typically never a pleasant ride. It's the same with Bangalore. Taking the mainline to Madras gets you rolling at a good pace through miles and miles of construction sites, garish coloured buildings and subjects you to an atmosphere liberally peppered with sand and dust. The exit to Mysore presents a formidable array of smoking garbage and slum-dwellings. The line to Arsikere via Malleshwaram and Yeshwantpur felt slightly more bearable, and the urban buildings soon gave away to suburban, and finally to rural.

As the man opposite me unfolded a copy of the day's Malayala Manorama, I went Aha! He had spoken to me earlier in English, and I had replied accordingly. When the time was ripe I dropped the 'surprise the Malayali' bomb. Casually, as if to continue the conversation, I asked - "Saar engottaa pokunne?". His head popped up above the newspaper and his shining eyes said it all "Aha! Malayaali aanalle!". And that was how I made the acquaintance of Fr. Abraham.

The scenery had switched to the pure rustic now - Kucha roads, ragi and maize fields, and incandescent bulbs lighting up the occasional cluster of houses. This was a single line, diesel territory and the only electric poles that were around were the small unassuming ones bringing power to the lone houses set in the middle of fields. It was a cloudy morning, we were ambling along at a leisurely pace and stopping at every station enroute. Golhalli, Bhairanayakanahalli, Dodbele, Dobbspet - all of them small stations that crop up suddenly on the way, as if to put a break to the monotony. 

Tumkur was like waking up from a dream. A harsh blot on the landscape by man, reminding you of dust and crowds and packed human settlements, the train seemed to heave a sigh of relief as we exited and picked up pace. We had picked up a good number of food vendors as well, and for a while the coaches were filled with the smell of chutney and chai. It was time to head to the door. I gave up my seat to a middle aged gentleman who was only too glad to sit down, sat down at the doorway and put my feet out. It was heavenly. We must have been trotting on at no more than 65 kmph and the world seemed to be completely at peace. At every station there was just enough time to get off, stretch my legs, have a good look around the platform and nod politely at the birds chirping away in the tall trees lining it.


Mallasandra, Gubbi, Nittur, Sampige Road. 
This was life at its unhurried best, where you didnt have to fight your way into a coach or worry about the train starting off before you boarded it. Halt stations, akin to rural bus stops are probably the most passenger friendly in that respect. And what's a single line route without the pleasure of waiting for crossings! At Gubbi we halted a little longer than usual and I went up ahead to have a little chat with the drivers. We were waiting for the intercity from Shimoga to cross. The train controllers in the section seemed to be doing a good job and within a few minutes the train came roaring up the gradient. A short while later we let out a long blast of the horn and set off at our own sweet pace. My camera had caught the attention of a few lads in the first coach and I had made friends with them by employing whatever kannada I had picked up after coming to Bangalore. The boys Praveen and Naresh were also heading to Arsikere, and I kept feeding them little bytes of railway information on the way - what the triangular board with the number 20 on it meant, and how we would pick up pace after passing the circular 'T' board and so forth.

We played hide and seek with a few low hills in the last leg of the run upto Arsikere. At around 12.30, we pulled into Arsikere, a little over half an hour late. The end of the station towards Hubli is a lovely one - lined with grand old trees and maintained spotlessly clean with the track heading straight into the hills. The other end leads to Hassan and Bangalore. Bharat, who had suggested that I make my weekend getaway this small town in the first place, dropped a tip that the food was decent too. Excellent, I thought as I picked up a warm packet of puliyogare from the vegetarian refreshment stall on platform 1. The sun had gone behind the clouds and there was ample time to sit under one of the trees and savour the spicy sour stuff. 
Arsikere is named after a tank ('kere') during the time of the Hoysala kings. The town was a prominent place during their rule, and the 'Arasi' in the name refers to one of the princesses of the Hoysala dynasty. A 13th century temple built during their reign is also situated here - while wikipedia calls it the Ishwara temple, the locals simply call it Shivalaya. A short auto ride later, I was left to myself with the birds and trees at the breezy Shivalaya grounds.

On first glance, it seems a tad smaller in size than the photos might suggest. The place around the temple is protected by the ASI, and is maintained spotlessly clean. Huge banyan trees line one end of the temple, and brightly painted houses overlook the other. 

A few men were sitting around and gave one long glance to the stranger with his camera, and resumed their business of doing nothing. The small area around the temple is to be negotiated barefoot, and consists of neatly trimmed grass and upon which the old stone structure resides.

The main sanctum sits all the way in the rear end, and is guarded by a 16-pointed star shaped mandapa. Set in solid, cold stone, it felt easily a couple of degrees cooler just sitting on the smooth granite slab set amongst carvings of animals, gods and the like. Wonder how many generations must have sat in the same spot, over the same piece of stone.

There's this powerful emotion I feel at times when visiting old monuments, especially empty ones - and that is one of the voices of the past. Walking around in the cool breeze, with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional passing bus in the air, I couldn't help imagine how it must have been centuries ago, with the devout thronging the place. The air heavy with the smell of kumkum and camphor and incense, the priest conducting the morning puja and the crowd standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the figurine, anointed with sandalwood paste and adorned with freshly made flower garlands, illuminated in the light of the camphor flame during the deeparadhana.

The courtyard is home to some lovely, quaint objects. One being the small Nagaraja stone figurines set at the base of trees: This is something seen quite a lot in Kerala temples. The second was a set of rocks, no doubt from the same site, with various engravings on them, laid out neatly in a row on a raised platform in the grass. There was something terribly attractive about quiet charm of it all, something I would never expect in the grand temples of Tamil Nadu or the marble steps of the modern day ISKCON shrines.

I spent a long time around the place and it turned out to be an afternoon well spent. The next train out of Arsikere was only in the late evening and I thought I might as well check out the tank which gave the town its name. "Neer jasthi illa saar, yakke hogubeku?" The auto driver was justified in asking. There isnt much water in it sir, why do you want to go there?

I dont know boss. Chalo. 

We passed over the railway line to Bangalore and he stopped his auto by the side of the road while I strolled around taking in the place. It was a large water body, no doubt more beautiful during the monsoons. The railway line ran below, on the other side of the road in the form of a long S-curve to the side and I couldn't help wishing for a freighter to turn up. Where are trains when you need them! 

A masala dosa and a green banana from the shop nearby, and back at the station. Lady luck was kind - the returning passenger to Bangalore was running late by two hours or so, and was due in half an hour. 

By now I was pretty much tired to do anything more and eyeing the sizeable crowd that would probably be thronging all the stations enroute, got into the coach and climbed up to the luggage rack. A few gulps of water, and with some help from the chugging loco I was soon napping to the swaying of the coach over the single line track to Bangalore.