South Korea is not high on people’s travel itinerary. And though 2010 through 2012 is Visit Korea year according to their Tourism guys, someone forgot to pass that memo to the Visa guys. However, that is just a minor quibble. The country, OK, the city of Seoul itself is quite a wonderful place to visit. That is because though it was supposed to be the middle of a heat wave, someone forgot to send the weather Gods a memo and it rained all through the 10 days I was there.
Well not all 10 days, there was a sunny day in there. And of course, a bright and sunny day the day I left.a
Sometimes you get writers block. Sometimes your attempts at humour are forced and yes it is never good when it is forced. And yet, sometimes the trip itself was interesting enough for you to just lay it down. Without being a funny guy.
Such was the trip we made from Madurai to Chettinad. Specifically, two towns, Karaikudi and Kanadukathan. Now, the only reason we stayed in Madurai is because most of the places we searched turned out to be expensive (think 9K and above for a couple). This was also because for the first time, the Missus was OK with just setting out with no fixed agenda. In fact she mandated it be so. And of course last minute planning don’t always work your way.
The good thing was that the last place we stayed at in Madurai was available. We moved in from Tharangambadi, the trip being precisely 300 KM. We encountered the lack of road signs. Though that is an existential question. How can you encounter something that is not there. For those not interested in such dilemmas, when you set out from Tharangambadi, take the route to Nagapattinam, thence to Thanjavur, where around 5 KM short of the town there is a 4-lane being constructed. Get on that. Once you get to some distance, there is a cute board that promises Pudukkotai to the left. Obviously, this board would be of much better use where the road forks, one leading to Thanjavur town and the other that by-passes it. Oh well.
From Madurai, Karaikudi is a day trip. The pot holes are absent on these roads, so the drive is really a breeze. However, like elsewhere, sign-boards are absent too, so you’ll need to pull over once in a while to ask for directions. You’ll pass through some breath-taking countryside, so stopping and asking directions should not be that much of a chore.
Now Chettinad is spread over 74 (or 96) villages depending upon who you ask. However, the nice lady who runs The Bangala at Karaikudi stated 74, so I’m going to believe that. The point I’m labouring to come to is that while there are many villages, Karaikudi and Kanadukathan should give you a taste of the huge bungalows that the Nattukotai Chettiars built for themselves and posterity. And the food that they’re rightfully famous for.
A lot of the bungalows are in bad shape, but some like The Bangla are well-kept and are still in use. You can choose to stay here or just pass by for lunch, which is heavenly by the way. The Missus turned up her nose when I loosened a button on the jeans. I would’ve given anything to just give up and imitate a sloth, (not the hang-upside-down-from-a-tree bit) but since The Missus commanded that we go forward, all those plans had to be put on hold. The kind folks at The Bangla will also allow you to go up to their mansion to take a peek at their magnificent interiors. Do so and gawp. Post that you can take a leisurely walk through Kariakudi town and gawp some more, at the other mansions around. Not all of them allow you to enter – some are still used as residences – so be polite and keep in mind that you wouldn’t let random strangers into your flat either.
The palace at Kanadukathan is over 100 years old and is currently undergoing renovation. There isn’t a set date by which it is likely to be finished, or at least it is not advertised, so keep that in mind when you go there. Some consolation can be had by visiting the bungalow next door which houses a museum of sorts that depicts a typical Chettinad household. Kanadukathan is a small village, but for a small village it has a disproportionate number of large mansions. The palace being just one of them, in fact, the town very proudly states that it is a Heritage town just as you enter it. Unlike Karaikudi, the mansions seem better maintained, but they both share the lack of residents.
The road from Tharangambadi had serendipitously thrown up a fort too, and as it turned out it was not very far from Kanadukathan. It is not exactly a major draw, even the requisite local love-birds were absent, but after a long day of the grandiose, it was nice to see – how do I put it – just a fort. No grand palaces, no intricate maze, nothing. Just 4 layers of fortified walls, a cannon pointing east when you reach the inner-most layer of walls and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. There is a cave temple in the premises, but the entrance was dark and narrow so we gave it a miss.
The way back also threw up the Vettangudi Bird Sanctuary, just past Tirupattur, on the way back to Madurai, but then it also threw in a torrential rain. So we let it pass too. After all it is still on the same planet. And I can still end on a funny note. Or a non-sequitur.