Setting out from Chennai, in a hired car with driver, is perhaps the best way to explore nearby areas. It gives you the flexibility of stopping where you want, and also of picking your own route. We set out on a bright sunny, winter’s day and went through Pondy, so as to be able to incorporate a siesta during the journey. We stayed at a guest house, right in the middle of “downtown” Pondy called Meeranjali. It was the best decision that day. First of all a little about the guest house: Clean, quite and ultra helpful hosts. It is only a few streets away from the ocean front and less from the Nehru park and so ideally situated for tourists. But being in a residential part of town it is in a very quite neighbourhood and so perfect for a good night’s sleep (or afternoon for that matter!).
After a quick lunch at a local restaurant, a quicker tour of the Ashram and the Vinayakar temple and a protracted tour of the few local shops and a gigantic nap, we headed out straight for the first big stop of the tour: Chidambaram. For anyone born in a shaivaite, Tamil family and raised on a healthy dose of Nandanar charitram and bharatanatyam classes, Thillia needs no introduction. For everyone else, there is this.
Earlier in the week, I had done my research of the local hotels near the temple, called a few and booked a room in the Akshaya Hotel as the guy who picked up the phone had the best manners*. But when calling him on the way out of Pondy to confirm our arrival, like a true follower of Murphy’s law, he told me very politely that we no longer had the room. Recovering from my mild panic attack and after making sure my co-travellers were not similarly affected, I proceeded to employ the 4 arts of persuasion exemplified by Tyagayya’s Rama** and finally got to him. Ok, he said, he can get us a room, but the third bed will only be a mattress on the ground. By this time I would have agreed for just the plain floor. So all through the bone rattling ride through the state highways, I kept muttering to myself “there will be mattress” and after a really long 5 hour journey we turned into a tiny lane across from the temple. It was dark and dusty and bustling. By the time we got to the main desk from the car, I had sneezed 10 times, bumped into 5 different bell boys and walked into various furniture. But the front desk guy was polite, made us wait another 20 mins and finally squeezed us and our luggage into an impossibly tiny lift that took us the three floors to our room. And the room…What can I say about a room that has the stale smell of cigarette smoke and a layer of fine dust on the floor and an A/C unit that makes so much noise, it is like living in the engine of an exceptionally old lorry? I suppose I could have said “wow” but I was afraid if I opened my mouth the mosquitos would get in. But to give him credit, he did bring the mattress and more stale, cigarette-smoke smelly linen and made me a bed on the dust filled floor. We were so sore from the journey, we plonked ourselves on our respective beds and slept. Next morning, as we wanted to catch the early pooja, we woke up bright and early, me with a sore throat, the others with other sore body parts. I decided to brush my teeth in the basin that was conveniently situated just outside the bathroom, while one of us had a shower. Water clogged the basin. On the third call, the guy came to fix it and flooded the floor with used water from the basin and left to get a bucket and mop to clean it up, the basin was still un-fixed. An hour later, after two of us had taken our showers and narrowly missed skidding on the wet floor and a few intrepid mosquitos had laid their eggs on the basin water, he came to clean it up. To give the manager his due, he did offer us the use of the empty room next door, so one of us at least was spared the torture of tiptoeing over dirty water. Miraculously, we were only 10 min late for the free breakfast buffet of “continental breakfast-vegetarian”. Which included pongal, vadai, fruit salad (banana and pomegranate), bread toast and choice of coffee, tea or one fruit juice (grape or pomegranate)***. The good thing about this was we made up for lost time and quickly walked across to the Temple.
* Honestly, if you had been barked at over the phone, you would know how important a simple, mild “hello” could be!
** SAma, DAna, Bheda, Dhandam: gentle persuasion, bribery (in my case in form of words), threat and finally punishment. Only I went in the reverse order.
*** I believe the regular breakfast did not have include the bread and the fruit salad.