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East Coast Road: The Perfect Chennai Escape

There is this road by the sea that breaks free from concrete and chases the coast. At points, parts of it break off and fan out. Most course inland while one continues to hug the sea where the sea has allowed it to, without claiming the land for itself. They call this the East Coast Road, at least for a few good lengths of it. Elsewhere, it has other names: SH49, NH32, SH176. Depending on the time of day, the sea it borders reveals its many colours—silver at dawn, teal at midday, golden at dusk, bChennailack at midnight. If you follow the road by the sea, leaving behind the chaos of Chennai, it’ll lead you to temple towns via quaint colonial outposts where the well-heeled vacation in refurbished heritage homes.

It’ll take you past hamlets where men knit fishing nets in the shadows of towering churches. At the end of it all, this road by the sea will lead you to the tip of the subcontinent: Kanyakumari.

That point in a tectonic rudder that drove one prehistoric landmass to collide with another, causing mountains as high as the Himalayas to rise and fall, into plains and plateaus, hills and valleys and rivers, coming right back down to sea. On the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, a monument on an island, you find yourself surrounded by day-trippers posing for photographs, the younger ones for selfies, older ones for family portraits, the cell phone almost always replacing the traditional camera. Standing here, you realise that before you lies a land drenched in stupendous complexity—the nations, their people, customs, food, rituals, languages, politics. You find it comforting to relish the simple sights and sounds. An elderly Marathi couple arguing over whether Swami Vivekananda had attained samadhi at the rock or had merely visited it. Girls on a school trip playing hopscotch while their teachers catch a break from the afternoon heat.

Tourists listening intently to their guide who, in fluent German, points and gesticulates at the structure in front of them. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face. The road by the sea has led up to this, but only you know how long it’s taken to get here—about 1,000km and, along the way, many discoveries. It all begins when you arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mamallapuram (more commonly called Mahabalipuram). Stroll through its 7th- and 8th-century monuments and romance the ruins —Krishna s Butter Ball, the rathas, the cave shrines. Wander around and stumble upon a whole new reason to visit—amateur sport fishing. The area’s marine residents—marlin, barracuda, barramundi, yellow tail and whatnot—are reeling in fishing enthusiasts from across India. You’re struck by #fomo, so you rise before dawn and head out to sea. Your feet are jelly on a swaying boat.

Armed with a steel rod and fancy tackle, Prithvi, a deep-voiced man with a large belly shows you how to cast, where and for what. Plop! There goes the bait. You tease your prey and pray for luck. Nothing. Repeat. Nada. Different spot. Same result. Never mind, it’s still a thrilling experience, you decide. The rush of the sea, the uncertainty of success. Hooked—fine and sinker. Another day, another thrill you’d least expected in another sleepy temple town—this time in Rameswaram. You’ve been taking detours to empty beaches that you’re grateful no one else seems to know about. Not in your circle of friends anyway. Then you spot a kitesurfer on a beach and realise he’s Jehan, a friend’s friend. One person doesn’t count, you decide. Jehan now runs a water sports school. You grit your teeth and try paddle boarding, with a fish in a dog’s body perched on the board.

Rameswaram Temple
Rameswaram Temple

You wish that you had his balance, that you could swim like him, that you were that graceful fish. Return disappointed as the toddy’s been drank and all that’s left is coconut water. Drive on through dusty towns where filter kaapi and malligai poo (jasmine flowers) are more bywords than keywords. And look out at a verdant skyline punctured every so often by a temple spire. One of these, standing tall, grabs your attention. You turn to it: Tiruchendur, one of the holiest sites dedicated to Karthikeya, Shiva’s son. It’s obvious this is a one-horse town—all roads lead to the temple, all hotels cater to pilgrims. All restaurants are vegetarian. You work either for the temple or for those who visit it. Groups on tour, families with elderly folk and with children, heads tonsured, gender no bar, covered in sandalwood paste waiting to enter the temple, exiting it, resting in its corridors and bathing on its beach.

Pilgrimage, probably the oldest form of tourism known to humankind, thrives on this road that takes the faithful to places like Tiruchendur and Velankanni and Nagoor. A trinity of holy sites for India’s trinity of major religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In Velankanni stands the sparkling white seaside shrine to Mary. In Nagoor, the shrine of Sufi Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed. In both, you find devotees of all faiths, united by their faith. This road by the sea also leads to a feel-good place, you realise. You #heart this road. You also #heart your lunch in Puducherry, in a refurbished French home called La Villa. You step in and bump into old friends. Shake your head at the chances and join their table. Lunch turns into a joyous affair, full of mirth and memories. You wonder at how so many travel memories are connected to food.

This is reinforced days later, in KaralkudI, when the doting matriarch of another lovely old home-tumed-boutique-hotel, The Bangala, ensures you’re fed to the point of being comatose. Multiple courses of delicious vegetables and game meats: kaadai (quail), muyal (rabbit), pitta (turkey). Sour, spicy, savoury, sweet. All as traditional as they get, she insists, and all farm- (or jungle-) to-table. The food’s delicious and you’re so stuffed that you can do nothing but rest in your four-poster bed under a lofty ceiling. It’s only later, when you wake up, that you admire the intricately carved doorways, the pillars and period photographs of the family on the walls. Some days on the road are indeed better spent off it, you surmise. When you do step out, you realise The Bangala is just one of many palatial homes here, known simply by the initials of the families that own them—MSMM, AVM, PMA. Each makes you stop mid-traffic and whip out your phone for yet another photograph.

The Bangala

The grand structures, many crumbling, stand as examples of the power of travel to transform communities. Think of the Chettiars, the dominant class in this region, who moved inland after a tsunami swept through their seaside home. Of how, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, they braved the sea to head to places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia to trade and become moneylenders. With the revenue from their travels, they built stunning palaces, channelling every aesthetic form learnt at home and in the West: Art Deco, Gothic, Neoclassical. Some of the wealthy brought over European architects to build their mansions. Others simply produced photographs from trips for local artisans to be inspired by. Today, parts of these homes and the possessions of their masters—Burma teak pillars, doors and doorposts, watches and walking sticks—are found in antique shops.

You also buy heirloom saris from weavers who are returning to handspun cotton and natural dyes. You’ll bring these back, along with memories of meals eaten, people met, temples and churches visited, and beaches bummed on. Sitting on the rock in Kanyakumari, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, you think about how being on the road is almost always laced with such discovery. Even if you have all your pit stops planned, you can never be quite sure how the trip will turn out. For each road holds many surprises, and certainly this one that borders an endless sea.

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