getting home

an abandoned temple chariot (used for carrying statues of the gods) by the side of the road in pudukottai; detail. and no, i don’t know why this is sitting on the side of the road, but it obviously had been there for a while.

the final post of the jallikattu series: i started out on wednesday morning with the decision to take the state highways, rather than the national highway, back to chennai; taking these roads, i would see the smaller towns and villages of the region. the first stop was thirupattur, where i’d seen the m.g.r. posters the day before.  there was a restaurant in town that, according to my companions of the previous days, served the best roti and mutton (goat) stew in the area. when i lived albania, anytime i drove south with the mapo team, we would stop in lezhë to eat spinach pies (byrek) at a roadside stand where all the truckers ate, so i looked forward to having a similar gastronomical adventure in tamil nadu.

the food did not disappoint; even though the chunks of meat in my bowl were mostly kidney, the stew was rich and savory, and the roti were warm and flaky. i debated having a second bowl, but i wanted to get on the road, so i paid my bill and headed back to where i’d parked. as soon as i got to the car, however, i felt everything in my stomach and intestines take a two-inch shift south. after a second of panic, i coolly began calculating exactly how far i might be able to drive, and what kind of bush or ditch i would need to find when i finally had to pull over.

fortunately, everything found a new sense of equilibrium after a few minutes, so i was able to proceed confidently. the first significant town i found was pudukottai, which had been the capital of a princely state of the same name from the 1600’s until independence.  it was pretty sleepy when i drove through, and the temple was closed for lunch, so, after taking a few snaps of the town, i drove on. i considered stopping at thanjavur, which i’d visited once before (and i just now realize that i never posted any of those photos – those will come soon), but decided it would be better just to get onto the national highway, as i was getting tired. i headed in the direction shown on my smartphone’s gps and within half an hour was completely lost. this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because i soon drove into thiruvaiyaru.

thiruvaiyaru is another quiet town, but – as i subsequently found out – it is nonetheless very important culturally. there is an ancient shiva temple there (which i didn’t know to look for) and, according to wikipedia, it’s as holy a city as varanasi, and pilgrims cleanse their sins by bathing in the river.  (there were no pilgrims in town when i was there, and all i saw by the river was people washing their clothes.) the city was also the home of thyagaraja, one of the three major composers of carnatic music, and there is a festival there every january.  i’ll have to go next year.

thiruvaiyaru appears to be a very quiet place.

unlike the larger cities i’d visited, very few people approached me or mugged for the camera. nonetheless, some local women kindly opened a small temple on a side street as i was passing by, so i could look inside, and i was very happy just to wander the few side streets and market adjacent to the river without keeping an eye on the time. finally, i noticed it was after 3.30 pm; i’d been on the road since 8.30 am and i knew i still had far to go, so i got back in the car. i checked the gps, and saw that by staying on the state highways and traveling at the recommended 60 kilometers per hour (40 mph), chennai was five hours away. the entry to the national highway was so far to the southeast that it made no sense to backtrack; it would be more sensible to stay on the local roads until i reached the outskirts of chennai. off i went.

what i hadn’t counted on, however, was that it is impossible to go 60 kph on these two-lane (one in each direction) state highways: between the potholes, the bottlenecks in the villages, the construction, and the buses – both those in front of you and the ones that force you off the road so they can move into your lane to pass on a blind curve – i was often crawling at 20 kph. every 40 minutes or so, i checked the gps to make sure i was still on the right road, and every time, it said that chennai was 5 hours away. this wasn’t looking good.

by around 6.30 pm, it was pitch dark. the blackness was interrupted only by the glare of oncoming headlights, which left me temporarily blind. i was confident enough of my reflexes and my nerves that i wasn’t worried about ending up in some awful accident, but the fact that i had to keep reminding myself that i was this confident meant that the threat of becoming an object-lesson in recklessness was never too far from my mind. after an hour of this, and of failing to find anything i recognized as a hotel, i stopped in vadalur, a large town at the intersection of two state highways. the only hotel sign i saw was attached to a building that was still under construction, so i ate dinner and turned east toward pondicherry.

to get from from vadalur to pondicherry, you have to take state highway 10 through cuddilore.  cuddilore was the town where cyclone thane made landfall three weeks before, and the darkened road was full of obstacles – downed tree branches, pedestrians in low-visibility clothing, and motorbikes with burned out taillights – that made the drive a particular study in concentration.  i contemplated getting out to take a photograph, but without my headlights on, the image would have looked something like this:

this wasn't actually taken in cuddilore, but it's not like you could tell.

after a few miles of this, a “road closed” sign appeared out of the darkness. i wasn’t alone on the highway at this point, and we all saw two cars coming out from beyond the sign.  the more sensible drivers turned off to the right toward who knows where, but the rest of us figured, “how bad can it be if these guys made it through?” and, edging around the sign, soldiered ahead. for the first few miles, the road was no better or worse than it had been, but then the road stopped completely, and we were confronted with a single rutted dirt path twisting its way through a site full of concrete pylons and abandoned construction equipment. “the only way out is through,” i decided. amazingly, the figo didn’t scrape bottom even once.

after that, the road became progressively easier. i come back out onto the main road and merrily dodged oncoming buses until i got into pondicherry and found a hotel for the night. and the next day’s drive back to chennai was a piece of cake.


Author: cohn17

Photographer and baker of macarons.

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