Travelogues from the South: Nagapattinam and Karaikal
3 am, Velankanni/ Karaikal Express
The ladies in the compartment have stopped fighting. Some of them have fallen asleep. There is a makeshift cradle made of a saree in front of me with a three year old girl in it. Ranjani is asleep as well. Not an inch of space could be found in the floor; women and children are packed here, like that of a refugee camp. I was awake because my feet suddenly felt wet. I woke up Ranjani and said this to her. Alarmed we both checked if the cradle in front of me was wet as well. Thankfully it wasn’t; the kid hadn’t peed into me.
8 am, Velankanni
Velankanni is a village where the living centers around a huge Christian shrine. We had our breakfast from a restaurant which served Kerala food. It is a totally good feeling to relish on idiyappams and tea, listening to cheesy Mallu songs. We also bought a handful of lollipops from a vendor nearby.
The Basilica at Velankanni was built around AD 1600s when the apparition of Mary and Christ appeared in three miraculous events: first in front of a boy carrying milk, then to a lame buttermilk vendor and at last during the rescue of Portuguese sailors in a storm. Though the apparitions have neither any historical veracity nor is it approved by the Holy See, Velankanni is surprisingly one of the most frequented religious shrines in India. The Basilica is a very large Gothic styled church, painted in white. Here most of the pilgrims are from Kerala, as we ascertained from their conversations.
After visiting the church compound, we went to the Museum of Donations where people donated some of their valuables as gifts, in return for the granting of their prayers by the Our Lady of Good Health. There were hundreds of gold pens and coins which people offered when they had a kid, got married or was cured of some serious illness. Behind the church is a crowded street leading to the beach. Everything here is incredibly cheap and attractive that we couldn’t resist buying sea shells, scarves and collectibles. By noon our tryst with Velankanni was happily fulfilled.
It took us exactly one lollipop each to reach Nagapattinam from Velankanni.
2 pm, Danish Fort, Tranquebar
Bus rides are intensely philosophical. The one from Nagapattinam to Tharangambadi was no exception. Not a soul could be seen on the roads, apart from the occasional towns that rushed past us. The barren scrubland, the sea breeze from the east and the sheer isolation from mankind made the journey as perfect as it could be.
We reached Tranquebar after almost an hour of bus journey. The 2 pm sun burned us from head to toe as we entered the fort premises. The buildings inside the fort are unsurprisingly old and European in style. Tharangambadi or Tranquebar was a Danish colony from AD 1620 to AD 1845. Fort Dansborg is the second largest Danish fort after the one at Kronbor in Denmark. On one side of the road was a huge mansion where a guard sat peacefully near the entrance. We inquired about the building and he said that it was a private building around 400 years old, now owned by some people from Delhi. Next to this mansion is a Jesuit church built in AD 1718. Painted in bright white, it looked like a block of ice in a rather strange rural country. We walked to the main fort near the beach. Everything here is oddly un-Indian. The strange fact being that, in the uninhabited shores of Bay of Bengal was a Danish Fort, unknown by many, where everything suddenly seemed so quaint and foreign. Although the museum adjoining the fort, being tiny and unorganized didn’t match our expectations, the battlements and the ramparts were beautiful in its own Danish sense. The sea breeze was cool and strong enough to make me fall asleep while Ranjani sat there doing something on her phone. That’s two days of sleep deprivation catching up.
The beach adjoining the fort was filled with the remains of antique fortifications, jutting into the sea. It was here that Ranjani consoled me with the rather thrilling ‘Bae of Bengal’ pun, the story of which I’ll tell you when I am brave enough to talk about it.
Later as we walked back to the bus stop, we went into the mansion again and asked the guard if we could use the washrooms. These are the consequences of drinking a litre each of mango juice. Though initially he refused, he complied later. Maybe he was moved by our shabby hair and sun dried, gypsy-like faces. As our token of love we decided to thank him with a lollipop. He didn’t accept it when I gave the strawberry flavored lollipop, but he took the one with caramel flavor which Ranjani gave him.
5 pm, Nagore Sufi Dargah
History lessons are a good thing. And it is one of those lessons which prompted us to get out of the bus without a second thought when it stopped near a placard which said ‘Nagore Police Station’. Nagore is famous for a Sufi Shrine built in the 15th century for Hazrath Nagore Shahul Hamid. This place is a pilgrimage destination for Muslims and Hindus alike, a perfect example of co-existence.
“I am going to Islamize my name to Soofia.” I said. “An extra vowel wouldn’t matter”.
“Alright, I am Aisha” said Ranjani.
We left our shoes outside and entered the dargah with an offering that consisted of some sugar and agarbattis. It started raining. Inside the dargah, there were men and women reading the Quran. I took a Quran and started reading a few paragraphs. Soon Ranjani followed, but she was reciting the Hanuman Chalisa with a Quran in front of her. And that was a beautiful sight to behold.
It was a little disappointing when a man, upon our inquiry, said that there are no Sufi mystical music performances here. And the best way to deal with such a disappointment is to plug your earphones to your phone and listen to AR Rahman’s Khwaja Mere Khwaja.
Life lesson: If you search for it, you’ll find it. Also carry lollipops to deal with disappointment.
6: 45 pm, Kayarohanaswami Temple, Nagapattinam
“I am Shakunthala/ Savithri”, I said.
“That’s an odd name in the 21st century” Ranjani said, as we both put small black bindis to our forehead. “I’ll be just Ranjani”.
The Kayarohanaswami Temple is a sixth century AD shrine, mentioned in the poems of the Nayanar saints Appar and Sambandar. Don’t get fooled by its humble entrance, because it is a very large temple. There are multiple layers of gates and fortifications. The interior is dark, sooty and suddenly so spiritual. There are many deities, presided by Lord Shiva. We went inside and offered prayers. At one corner was the Navagraha shrine where one is supposed to walk around nine times, which I did by chanting the Gayathri Mantra, the only Hindu mantra I knew. Everything is spiritual here.
Talking about faith, it is a very confusing realm of thought. When you grow up and learn about the world, atheism is very appealing because in the end it is rational and logical. But for me the years I have been an atheist was undoubtedly the worst years of my life: the worst summers, the worst winters, and the worst vacations. Not because of having lost God, but because suddenly everything was in my control. When you try to control one aspect of your life, the other side falls apart spectacularly! The negation of the existence of God also means that the ultimate power lies within us. And obviously I couldn’t control it. It’s illogical but I guess, leaving it to some divine ‘thing’ (he/she/it) can sort out a lot of things. Also it opens the scope for excuses, if that’s the case. “Oh, this is my destiny” or maybe “I didn’t do that, some supernatural being forced me to do it”. The final idea of the theistic orientation being that we don’t have to be the control freak: it becomes easy to focus on things within our power and leave the rest to you don’t know who.
8 pm, the streets of Nagapattinam
We got out of the temple and roamed around the streets. In the roads of Nagapattinam, there is no distinction between ‘what is a road’ and ‘what is not’. People walk in the middle of the road and there are street vendors parked everywhere. At a sweetmeat shop, the man gave us samples of all the sweets he had, for free. And his generosity means that we couldn’t disappoint him. We bought a plate of palkova and roamed around enjoying the street life.
The dosa and chutney in the Deepam Mess is a very spicy option for dinner, as they’ll surely make you gasp for water and some breath. A couple with two kids came in where the elder boy was crying so badly because his Appa refused to buy him a toy car. They came and sat in the table next to us. When his father asked him what he wanted to eat, the little one sobbed “I’ll sleep hungry tonight”. I apologize for being the sadist, but that was very cute. “You won’t buy me the car. So I’ll sleep hungry tonight!” The drama continued and he wouldn’t eat until his Appa promised him that he’d buy him car if he ate his food. After dinner we both walked back to the temple and sat in the company of Lord Kayarohanaswami and Nilayathakshi till 9:30 pm when we left to catch our bus to Chennai.
It all ended dramatically with Olivia yelling “Good to see you alive” back in the hostel.