Golden Rock and Gopuram Roll
by Mohan Bhuyan
It's a sultry afternoon in Chennai and a welcome break from the wintry north. The MRTS Station at Tiruvanmiyur looks exactly as it did 10 months ago when I was last here - incomplete, empty and ugly. Chennai's MRTS seems to be the last bastion of what I call the Indo-Socialist School of Architecture, which basically means gluing gigantic blocks of concrete together, usually grey & forbidding as in this case, but sometimes ghastly pink or urine yellow like the Ministries that line Rajpath in New Delhi.
Somewhere up above is the platform and on it is Poochi Venkat who is sending increasingly frantic sms's..."where r u? train about 2 leave!" I'm at ground level, which is a maze of unmarked passages and pillars and I am confused about the correct staircase for the platform. I shrug and run up the nearest set of stairs and after 2 levels emerge into daylight, right where Poochi is waiting with his characteristic grin.
The EMU is waiting on the single serviceable line, and most of the platform level is still being constructed. With material haphazardly strewn around, it looks more like bomb damage than work in progress. But I'm glad for the opportunity to finally "see" Chennai though I've been here about half a dozen times before, mostly in the Madras era. At street level and in a car one can't "see" the city; whizzing over the rooftops is an entirely different matter. And if you're with an expert like Poochi, you don't miss a thing. The Marina, now forever linked with the Tsunami, Chepauk Stadium, the Lighthouse, the old Presidency College, alma mater of some of India's brightest and best - I get a good first-time look at all.
The train terminates at the Beach station, which I am pleased to see, is next to the busy port. Glancing around to see if the coast is clear I shoot the ships being loaded from the vantage of the FOB and manage to squeeze a couple of BOXNs into the frame for the railway effect. Sridhar Joshi is waiting for us and Poochi is going to leave me in his capable hands very soon. But first we wait for their Driver friend to arrive on another EMU and then we all head to the main hall for coffee. The three of them are leaving for Pune in a couple of days, key delegates to the first ever IRFCA Convention. Listening to their talk I feel a twinge of guilt for having chosen that particular weekend for my tour of Gopuram Country. Blame the inexorable progress of gauge conversion, I remind myself; it's now or never for the best of the southern metre gauge.
Sridhar first says that he's going to take me to see some really old stuff at Royapuram but changes his mind after making a phone call. We're headed for the RRI Cabin of Chennai Central or the storied "Paawer Kebin" as operating staff in North India call it, and I'm terribly excited, though I try not to show it. I imagine a gleaming air-conditioned control tower with a dozen ASM's hunched over panels of blinking lights and barking commands into aircraft style headsets, so happily follow Sridhar into the heart of Central station.
Like so many other things in life, the reality is rather different. The Power Cabin is a dusty, nondescript room on the first floor of a drab building at the far end of the station. There is no air conditioning and though there are open windows on all sides it's not exactly the commanding view of the entire station that I was expecting. And instead of an army, there are just 3 ASM's (one of whom writes out caution orders) who manage the whole show with hand-held radio sets.
But there is nothing disappointing about the RRI Panel or the crisp efficiency of the ASM's as they the twirl knobs and flip the switches that allow multiple movements in & out of and within the station. Trying to make sense of everything, I grope for the right term and promptly make a fool of myself; "and these mark the location of each circuit breaker er… axle counter?" when I meant to say track circuit! So much for the knowledgeable railfan from Delhi!
There is plenty of action and one can spend hours following movement after movement on the panel. The arrival of locos and rakes from Basin Bridge and their subsequent departure as fully fledged trains - the Bangalore Shatabdi, the Circars Express, the Yelagiri to Jollarpet, and numerous EMU's. But most fascinating of all is the elaborate shunting required to place the saloon of a visiting GM at a power & water point, a spot occupied by a rake of fresh stock from ICF Perambur that has to be first removed and later reinserted in front of the saloon.
Alas as darkness descends it is time to leave but first a round of coffee in the main terminus area where announcements are being made in Tamil, English and heavily accented Hindi. Surprisingly, Hindi film songs resonate throughout the station between each announcement - the national integration powers of Bollywood on full display.
I head for Park station and an EMU to Tambaram, Sridhar's elaborate directions to the local Vasanta Bhavan ringing in my ears. Since it's time for the evening rush hour, I decide to travel First Class to avoid the crowds and as I often do, stand in the wrong queue for the ticket. By the time I get a ticket I miss the first EMU, which isn't such a bad thing in the end because it gives enough time to decipher the markings on the platform and stand at the right spot for First Class.
Our coach is a composite, half FC and half 2S (Ladies). There is just a waist high wooden partition in the middle enabling passengers in each section to see if the grass is greener on the other side. Our side has a dozen grim looking salary men while the other side is full of women, most with flowers in their hair. Nobody's talking in our half but the other half ensures that our coach is the noisiest in the entire rake!
A bank of seats next to the partition is empty and I bag one adjacent to the window. Soon a dignified elderly gent joins me and takes a newspaper out of his briefcase. I am torn between looking out at the passing rail stuff and searching for the prettiest woman on board. No contest - a slender, chatty secretary type in a salwaar kameez and minus the flowers gets my vote and in the process I miss Egmore.
Meanwhile a young woman boards the first class section and takes a seat facing us, upon which the elderly gent next to me gets up and moves to a middle seat on the far side. "Conservative Tam Bram", I think to myself, "feels uncomfortable in close proximity to unfamiliar women". Then another woman joins the first and gives me an unfriendly look. Some instinct makes me glance up at the bulkhead next to me and on it is a stencil of a sari-clad woman, pallu demurely draped over the head. The penny drops, I get up sheepishly and spend the rest of the ride hanging out of the entrance in Mumbaiyya style.
Our half coach is thinly populated throughout the ride and I have the run of both doors. But railway action is limited to EMU's and a lone WAG5 hauled BOXN rake. A plains clothed ticket-checker boards our coach and zeroes in on me as the only likely ticketless traveler. In a good mood at the prospect of a long train journey I make a great show of fumbling through my pockets looking for a ticket before finally producing it with a clumsy flourish and dropping it (unintentionally) on his shoes. Everybody is watching but nobody is as amused as I am.
I am surprised at how long it takes to reach Tambaram and how far beyond the airport it actually is. And when we reach Tambaram more surprises await like the size of the yard (which looks big, while I was expecting a Sarai Rohilla or Anwarganj) and the unusual livery of some of the metre gauge coaching stock - shades of blue just like in standard air braked BG stock.
It's a long hike from the station to the local Vasanta Bhawan and back and my bag begins to chafe on my shoulder. Vasanta Bhawan is teeming with customers and I opt for the takeaway. The man at the counter grins and shakes his head when I sheepishly whisper "masala dosa?" hoping not too attract the scorn of the other diners who are all tucking away great heaps of rice. At that hour the only portable foods are idlis & vadas, with the sambhar in a polythene bag. In Delhi you "pack" takeaway food while in Madras you "parcel" it and the subtlety makes me smile - trust the south to be more genteel!
Back at the station I reach the metre gauge platforms ten minutes before the scheduled departure of my train the 6701 Rameshwaram Express. In keeping with all the other minor mishaps of the day, I head for the front of the train while my first class coach is near the end. After walking the entire length of the train, I finally reach my 4-berth cabin to find it occupied by a middle-aged lady who eyes me suspiciously and confers urgently with her son who has come to drop her.
I smile at them for effect while commandeering the table for my parcel and as we thread our way out of Tambaram at 8.15, I open it to sample the first of the gazillion idlis that I'm going to be putting away in the next 3 days. The idlis are just so, the vadas are crisp, the sambhar delicious and the coconut chutney sublime. Only the diet coke doesn't combine well with the meal!
Meanwhile 6701 is rocking along at top speed behind a Golden Rock YDM 4 in a smart green and yellow livery. Though reduced to a single line from the glory days of double & electrified, the metre gauge trunk route of the south is obviously well maintained and 75 kph feels like much more. Remarkably the catenary masts are still in place next to us and I regret that I missed out on the whole YAM 1 experience.
Two middle-aged men who take the upper berths join us and our companion looks relieved that she isn't going to be left alone with this leering barbarian from the north. After everyone has finished eating and fussing with their bedding I turn off all the lights except the lovely old purple nightlight, the last Mohican of the non-fluorescent age of train lighting.
We cross a waiting goods train at a wayside station, something that always brings a cheer to my heart when traveling by MG. Tonight I am doubly blessed because at Chengalpattu there is another goods train on the through line while we take the platform loop.
I drift off to sleep but am woken soon after by the rumble of a bridge that seems to go on for a long time. Our slow speed falsely amplifies its length, persuading me into propping up an elbow and peering into the darkness. It's the Palar River - a mile wide and a foot deep like most rain fed peninsular rivers, and in fact it appears to be dry.
That's the flavour of the night-long journey - short bouts of sleep brought to abrupt ends by a station, a sudden jerk, a long blast of the horn or the rumble of a YDM 4 patiently waiting for us to cross. Through the fog of sleep and exhaustion (having caught the redeye from Delhi) I note a few notable scenes. Some sublime - moonlight playing on the waters of a large lake. A few railfanning - a pointsman holding a flaming torch for the token exchange even though his station has modern MACL signals. Others alarming - each junction seems to have a newly laid BG line heading off to the west confirming that it's only a matter of time before MG disappears completely from the Coromandel Coast.
I'm also dimly aware of towns made famous by temples and politicians alike - Chidambaram and Maliyaduturai. And others that will long remain in the public consciousness like Cuddalore, or a sign at another junction saying, "Change here for Nagapattinam".
Early morning finds 6701 deep in the Chola heartland in the vicinity of Tiruturaipundi and I regret missing the entire Cauvery Delta and having to bypass the nearby Point Calimere famous for its flamingos. Still, I am looking forward to a swing through what I believe is Gopuram territory. Here I expect each passing town to possess a temple with at least one towering Gopuram and the countryside to be straight out of the opening scenes of Roja. Eagerly I splash water into my eyes and open the door and scan the surroundings like a latter day Vasco da Gama. But there is nary a gopuram in sight and the landscape is well, like anywhere else in India - bucolic, pleasant perhaps, but not especially uncommon or charming.
The man on the top berth detrains at Adirampattinam and at Pattukottai so does the middle aged lady, leaving me in happy isolation in the 4 berther. None of us have exchanged a word since Tambaram - my most silent train journey ever.
At Peravurani there is a passenger train waiting for us headed by another spotless Golden Rocker, and a sizable crowd of passengers on the platform. Men not wearing trousers have their lungis rolled up till the knees, and I love the nonchalant flicks of the wrist that make the lungi fly submissively into this position.
The passenger train is a bit of a strange bird with blue "air-brake" livery that contrasts well with our standard maroon. My coach stops next to the brake van of the Passenger and two staff members appear with a large basket - a parcel for the SLR. When they the slide the door open I am surprised to see that the luggage compartment is far from empty, with several heavy gunny bags - probably rice.
We move on southwards very slowly; through the morning we haven't gone faster than 50 kph and according to my timetable we are more than an hour late. We are obviously on a branch line; there are no starter signals or route indicating homes and the speeds are low. No doubt gauge conversion has forced the 6701 and its afternoon departing partner the Sethu Express, to come this way. The original route would have been through Trichy. The stations are a bit of a curiosity though - old, quaint with sloping tiled roofs and wooden gables, and the stationmaster's office is at one end of the platform instead of at the halfway mark. But the most surprising things in some of these stations are the airport style luggage trolleys for passenger use - ample proof that the south is ahead of the north in more ways than one!
So we reach Arantangi and lo and behold there is a loaded goods rake on the loop line, though sans a loco. Curiosity gets the better of me and I hop off to examine the sealed label on the BC next to my coach, which still states that it belongs to NF Railway! As often happens when one is fiddling with things that are really none of one's business, the label comes off in my hand and I look around guiltily to see if anybody's noticed. Scurrying back to the safety of my compartment, I examine my trophy closely for information- a consignment of paddy from Nagapattinam on the coast, dispatched the day before yesterday, and now waiting to be unloaded.
Having bought lock, stock and barrel into Mani Ratnam's magical imagery of Tamil Nadu - verdant paddy fields in between rocky outcrops, groves of coconut and betel, and village tanks brimming with water where belles in brightly coloured bodices splash about - I feel a bit let down by the southern districts. It looks a bit like the drier parts of Haryana. Moreover, even cultivation is not continuous with acres of scrub and even wasteland making frequent appearances. And when I see that the thorny Kikar (a staple of Rajasthan and the drier parts of Haryana) is ubiquitous here as well, my disappointment is complete..
Of course there is relief from the monotony in the form of occasional rows of coconut trees interspersed with date palms. And the lotus blooming in a few wayside ponds and bright green paddy saplings in a few fields are all evidence of a good Northeast Monsoon. Then there are the roofs of traditional farmhouses, red tiles for the richer ones and palm fronds for the others. And as we get closer to Karaikkudi, the recent rain has brought the egrets out in large numbers and even a few peacocks.
Karaikkudi Jn, and I'm looking forward to a tasty breakfast even if it is simple platform fare. After all, the town is famous throughout India for its cooks and nearby on the line to Trichy is Chettinad, the name given to the cuisine of the region. Alas everybody else has the same idea, and by the time I reach the sole refreshment counter there is a massive scrum on for the only (and decidedly North Indian) items on the menu - puris and a very sloppy sabzi. Retreating I find a vendor selling spicy black channa, another selling murukku and a third selling tea and these make my breakfast.
Karaikkudi Jn may be culinarily unexciting but it is of interest for the passing railfan as it seems to have become a hub for local metre gauge activity. The neat station has 4 tree-bedecked platforms and a largish yard that must have had many more tracks once upon a busier time. Today there is only an Accident Relief Train and a couple of spare Golden Rock YDM 4's in the yard. Just when I think that 4 platforms are an extravagance for Karaikkudi, two passenger trains arrive from Trichy and Manamadurai and the station at once assumes a more important air.
I chat with one of the incoming Drivers and he tells me that the entire section from Maliyadutarai is rated for just 45-50 kph, while from here onwards it will be 60-65 kph. Through his thick accent I gather that the MG doesn't go all the way to Trichy anymore because the stretch after Pudukkottai has been closed for gauge conversion. So Golden Rock YDM4's are all castaways now and have to suffer the indignity of flatcar transportation for every POH.
As promised, we pick up speed after Karaikkudi but not enough to drive me away from the door. We now seem to be on a Class `R' MG line, with a full set of signals and signal boxes at each station. Ominous signs of gauge conversion are present at each minor bridge. A strange looking tree with a hemispherical canopy that suddenly seems to be everywhere grabs my eye. It has thick foliage and low branches that almost touch the ground like mangrove. I ask the gent temporarily sharing my door to identify the tree and he latches on to my own description and says it is indeed the mangrove! The FC coach is almost empty and there is no one else to ask but later someone else says that it is Cashew.
Though there is evidence of recent rain, the landscape continues to be less than verdant. I am hoping that the approaching Vaigai Valley will relieve the monotony somewhat. Meanwhile the Finance Minister's constituency Sivaganga comes and goes. For the railway it's just another two line wayside station, though it has a covered platform and two charming old signal cabins.
Not long after we pass through the middle of vast groves of Eucalyptus and I wonder once again why the social forestry division of each state is so in love with these water guzzlers. Plainly the region is dry for a greater part of the year so what do they do? Simple - plant Eucalyptus everywhere and let the entire original flora wither away!
Clearly the Vaigai is a seasonal river and quite incapable of adding a more vibrant hue to the dusty greenery on either bank. Now that the winter rains have ended all that is left are shallow pools here and there and only its clearly defined channel allows the Vaigai to call itself a river. A new bridge is being constructed for broad gauge and on the other side we encounter the newly commissioned line from Madurai that ends (for now) at Manamadurai Jn.
Manamadurai is a dreary looking place and for once I don't feel like getting down to do my "check out the junction" routine. The BG area is sequestered behind freshly whitewashed cement fences - purdah for the newly resident Queen Bee, while the MG platform lines have to make do with sand instead of ballast. 6701 has a longish stop and sure enough my splendid isolation ends when a railway stores officer and his subordinates settle down in my compartment and begin what I assume is a work related conversation because there is much note taking and file opening.
South and east of Manamadurai we enter the region known as Ramnad and the landscape is even duller than in the Chettinad. Or perhaps the railway line goes through the wrong areas, for there is kikar everywhere and little agriculture. Some relief is obtained after Paramakkudi when we cut across a vast area of swamps and reed where egrets, storks and the occasional cormorant enliven the journey somewhat. Through all this I note all the imminent signs of gauge conversion - ballast and concrete sleeper dumps and earthwork. 6701 and the Sethu Express are probably in their final year of operation.
Ramanathapuram is the headquarters of the eponymous district that also includes Rameshwaram Island in its jurisdiction and here about a third of the passengers detrain, mostly North Indian pilgrims treading in the footsteps of Lord Rama. The station also has a goods siding where gunny bags full of rice are being unloaded. Just as well, because the region doesn't look like it produces much of anything, let alone food grain.
Beyond Ramanathapuram the awful Kikar finally gives way to date palm and coconut and I am alone again in my compartment and impatient for the sea. Finally there is a whiff of something unmistakably tangy in the air and through the windows in the corridor I get a fleeting glimpse of something blue. I rush to the door just as 6701 rounds a bend and emerges into the clear next to the sea. Well almost, the sea is about half a km away beyond a large tidal lake and behind a line of dunes. But we are close enough to feel the snappy and cooling sea breeze. Ahead I can see an array of modern windmills pointing towards the coast with their aircraft style propellers turning slowly. As we pass behind them the wind blows stronger - perfect positioning for the windmills, but I wonder if these spindly structures have the strength to withstand the next cyclone that comes along. If they can't, then they are likely to collapse on to the railway line!
There is so much slack in 6701's schedule after Manamadurai that by the time we reach the last station on the mainland - Mandapam, we are on time again. The Pamban Channel and its famous bridge are just ahead and I'm dying to get moving again. We pull slowly out and after what feels like an age, we finally shake loose from the last dwellings of Mandapam to find the sea right next to the track on one side and the rising embankment of the highway on the other side.
Warming up to challenge the sea, the track curves to the left and again to the right. A semaphore guarding the entrance of the bridge is dipped in salute and just before we leave the mainland we pass two signs. One giving the official name "Pamban Viaduct" and the other the official speed limit, which is 25 kph. We are finally on the only sea bridge in India and I flit between door-to-door savouring the scene and shooting it for posterity.
The sea is calm and looking serene in light blue. Next to us on the eastern side are the remnants of the original viaduct, smashed to smithereens in that terrible 1964 cyclone. Now only the stump of each pier remains, stretching evenly spaced across the Pamban Channel, as if every 15 metres the traveler needs reminding of that tragic day. In between the new and old bridges is a long partially submerged reef or perhaps it is the wreckage of the latter. Whatever it may be, along with the broken piers it does appear to protect the new bridge by acting as a breakwater. The drawbridge, which is permanently manned, has a speed restriction of 15 kph and I lean out as far as I can in a vain attempt to get a glimpse of the mechanism that allows the track bed to lift up for an approaching vessel.
One has read and heard so much about this bridge that when one finally sees it; it's a bit of an anticlimax. For one I was expecting it to be longer than its 2 km and a bit higher off the surface of the sea. Of course the road bridge next to the Pamban Viaduct puts it in the shade in more ways than one, being taller and rather more elegant than the latter. Moreover calm seas do make for a tame experience - I want the waves to crash into the bridge even as we are on it! Even so it's worth the long journey from Delhi because the setting is indeed spectacular.
At Pamban Station new girders for the viaduct are strewn around the yard bringing thoughts of conversion back to my mind. But they don't look wide enough for BG, besides the stone piers of the existing bridge don't look like they are capable of bearing the crushing burden of the wider gauge's WDM2's. On leaving Pamban the track to Rameshwaram swerves to the east while a dirt path ringed by thorn bushes, that was once the permanent way to Dhanushkodi and its pier, continues straight on. Today as a tractor trundles down the path, I remember that the last train that went that way never came back.
Rameshwaram Island's topsoil is composed of sand so there is no cultivation worth the name here. Though coconut trees abound and the fishing fleet on the Pamban Channel looks large, it's obvious that the locals need to depend on something else for their livelihood.
That something else is religion and when 6701 pulls slowly into Rameshwaram station and disgorges its passengers, most of them turn out to be devout smalltowners from the Hindi heartland, who have come to this island from where Rama launched his invasion of Lanka and gave thanks to Lord Shiva after his victory. As they mill around confusedly forming and reforming their groups I make a beeline for the Retiring Rooms, not wanting to waste time looking for a hotel that will probably be full up with pilgrims anyway.
A stengun wielding policeman in mufti joins me at the Retiring Room Block, which is a rather big affair with several rooms. He is the PSO of some swami who dabbles in politics and even without the gun; he fits the part to a T, in his safari suit, crew cut, clipped mustache and Haryanvi drawl. Anticipating that he'll want to take the best room for his boss I quickly fill up the form and take the last AC room available. The cop and the RR attendant do not have a common lingua franca and I step in to help, assigning the remaining two rooms to the former. Pleased at finding a Hindi speaker the cop thanks me profusely, and I get a kick out of being above the law so to speak, for a bit anyway.
Rameshwaram has been reached, it's time for a quick shower, a change of clothes and then finding the means to make it to land's end - Dhanushkodi. Outside Rameshwaram station are half a dozen auto rickshaw wallahs, who perk up as soon as they see me coming out of the station building looking every bit the gullible tourist in a T-shirt, baggy shorts, cap and sunglasses. I ignore the first wave, select the least ruffian looking bloke from the second lot and take him aside for negotiations. I explain that I want to go to Dhanushkodi and the Pamban Bridge and he asks for Rs. 300 for the lot. Having already steeled myself for 400-500 (it's quite a long haul to Dhanushkodi and the bridge is in the opposite direction), I accept with alacrity thereby making the acquaintance of Mr. N.R. Senthil Kumar.
The part of Rameshwaram town in the vicinity of the station is rather rundown and untidy and smells of drying fish. But soon we are on the road to Dhanushkodi, which for the main part is straight and narrow, bounded on both sides by sand dunes with pine trees growing on them. Yes, pine trees, with acorns strewn on the sand, not ten degrees from the equator! "Weird place", I think and lean out to take a closer look. They are indeed a kind of pine, if a little stunted.
Senthil Kumar has been briefed to stop at any feature related to the old railway line, so not far from town he shows me a nondescript ruin surrounded by pine and thorn scrub and says it's the shell of the old Rameshwaram Road Station. It doesn't look like the remnant of anything remotely railway like so I decide not to plunge into the thorn bushes and explore. A little farther up the road, Senthil Kumar stops again and proudly points towards a twisted section of track lying next to the road, as if it is a prized family heirloom, and says "old railway line, finished by cyclone!" Indeed it is, and I shoot it like every visiting IRFCian has done before me. Apparently the single lane road (still overconfidently calling itself NH 49) was constructed on the old permanent way from the vicinity of the old Rameshwaram Road station till it peters out in the sands.
Dhanushkodi is at the end of a long spit of land that thrusts into the sea on the other side of the island from Rameshwaram town. That spit of land continues all the way to Sri Lanka as a series of sandbanks and islets mysteriously called Adam's Bridge. Surely if ever there was a case for renaming, this is it. Politicians never tire of arguing that renaming is all about restoring ancient history so it's a wonder that they have thus far passed up the grand opportunity that "Rama's Bridge" provides.
Three quarters of the way to Dhanushkodi is the Kothandaraswamy Temple at the end of a causeway sticking into the sea much like Mumbai's Haji Ali. Senthil Kumar turns into the causeway incorrectly assuming that I would like to see the temple. The view across the shallow bay to Rameshwaram and its distinctive TV tower is stunning, so we stop to savour it. There is a band of pink on the water about a mile away from where we are standing, just out of verification range. Water birds definitely and the pink suggests a flock of flamingos, but alas my zoom lens is only 3x.
Senthil Kumar is surprised that I don't want to see the venerable Kothandaraswamy shrine. "But it is very old, and most of it is buried in the sand," he pleads, but it doesn't look very interesting from afar. Besides there's no Gopuram to attract me. Reluctantly he resumes course for Dhanushkodi and presently we break free of the pine cover and emerge onto a sliver of sand with the sea on both sides, near the end of which sits what remains of Dhanushkodi. As we proceed further, the promontory becomes progressively narrower, tapering like a pencil. At its widest it must be 500-600 m, narrowing to less than 200 m in many places.
Meanwhile Senthil has grown comfortable in his role of guide. Keeping his left hand on the steering, he points to the west with his right and says, "Bay of Bengal". Then interchanging hands he points to the eastern sea and says "Indian Ocean". And then taking both hands off the handle and clasping them together he announces proudly while the auto wobbles, "Dhanushkodi - Samudra Sangam!"
I smile and nod enthusiastically in agreement. Along with the directions, Senthil has mixed up his "confluence of oceans"; it is actually the Gulf of Manaar to the west and Palk Bay to the East, but this is not the time to lecture him on the subtleties of geography for NH 49 has finally shed all pretences and becomes just another rural road, covered with potholes and sand drifts.
The road gasps and dies at the fishing hamlet of Munramchattram, an untidy collection of tumbledown shacks, palm frond huts and the odd permanent structure, all fronted by a superb beach. A check gate bars the progress of unauthorized vehicles into the dunes beyond and Senthil says that the Coast Guard frowns on outsiders in the area after sunset, a legacy of the Tamil Tigers and their gun running ways. Dhanushkodi is about 3 km beyond Munramchattram and the only way there other than a long hot walk is to hitch a ride on a passing jeep or tempo that carry fishermen and their produce to and fro.
Presently a tempo arrives with fishermen crowding the cab as well as the back, with a couple more on the roof. Senthil negotiates with the driver on my behalf who refuses quite firmly. The tempo passes through the gate and into the dunes, but Senthil is persistent, running alongside still pleading. I follow them into the sand but it's heavy going as the sand clings to my shoes turning every simple step into a big effort, and I stop. If I have to walk all the way and back, it'll have to be at water's edge where the sand is wet and firm. The tempo has stopped 50 m away, with Senthil still making his case. At last the Driver relents and agrees to take us to Dhanushkodi but not to bring us back. Senthil waves at me and I plod through the sand. We have to ride on the flimsy plywood covering the cargo portion of the tempo and conscious of making a fool of myself in front of all those fishermen (and women) I hoist myself with just a teeny bit of difficulty to the top. Senthil of course climbs up easily, in two graceful movements.
There is no road across the dunes as such, just a dirt track formed by vehicles treading the same path over and over again. It's a roller coaster ride for those on the top and several times I have to cling to the nylon ropes holding the plywood frame together to keep from sliding off. All along the spine of the promontory runs a hump or embankment, which has been gouged out at many places by the sea. This is all that remains of the permanent way that once bore the Boat Mail all the way from Egmore. Every 500 m or so stands a hut on stilts - watchtowers manned by the navy says Senthil Kumar, though I think he means the Coast Guard. At places the distance between the two seas is barely 100 m, and I wonder how long it will be before Dhanushkodi is permanently cut off from the rest of the island.
About half the way from Munramchattram, a cairn on the bluff marks the spot where the ill-fated train was washed away in the 1964 cyclone. Any thoughts of a long distance photograph are quickly put aside by the lurching tempo. I resolve to spend a moment or two at the spot if we have to walk back.
We come to a small cove on the eastern side of the promontory where there is a hardscrabble fishing hamlet. We have reached our destination - the ruins of the old town are just over the raised middle that is covered with thorn bushes. The driver agrees to spare us the short walk and drops us in the lee of the rise. I scramble through the brush and emerge directly beneath the old water tanks all that remains of the railway station. Someone has spread a cloth on the sand to dry seashells. The imagery couldn't have been more appropriate; empty shells are all that remain of old Dhanushkodi.
The remaining ruins of Dhanushkodi extend southwards from the water tank and make a poignant picture. A hundred metres from the water column stands a church, roofless but with part of its steeple and a stone altar at the far end still erect. The remaining buildings are in various states of devastation, as if the town was first carpet bombed and then a few of the dwellings were singled out for a second salvo. On the beach are a number of gaily painted fishing boats and the view from water's edge has a touch of the surreal - picture postcard golden beach, Van Gogh boats and then the ghost town.
But Dhanushkodi isn't inhabited by ghosts, just by very poor fisher folk. Their ramshackle palm frond huts occupy the highest ground between the two seas while the cove on the eastern side provides something of a safe harbour for their traditional boats. None of the boats are motorized, which means that they have to make do with whatever they can catch close to shore. Looking at their hovels, their thin nets and their pitifully small boats I am suddenly reminded of the Sethu Samudram Project, the grand plan to dredge a shipping route through Adam's Bridge and the Palk Straits. Surely these people will be the first to feel the ecological effects of that, will there be any fish left to fish?
There are no remnants of Dhanushkodi Pier. Senthil says that it used to be where the cove is today but I'm not convinced. Besides the damaged embankment, which I assume is the old permanent way seems to run some distance farther from where we are standing.
The sea looks very inviting and the beach is superb but this is not a place for fun and frolic. Senthil's Samudra Sangam is still a couple of klicks away so we make our way back to the cove to see if we can cadge another lift. Another tempo, this time filled with pilgrims arrives and Senthil negotiates two seats on the roof. This one is made of tin and doesn't have gaping holes on the top, so we have an easier ride. The spit of land that is Dhanushkodi finally peters out and straight ahead, invisible over the horizon is Mannar, Sri Lanka. "An hour by speed boat" says Senthil, though he hasn't ever crossed over himself.
There is nothing at Samudra Sangam not even a shrine and the pilgrims have to make do by wading in the surf and looking for shells. Along the way I see no evidence of Dhanushkodi Pier, though what I think is the old railway embankment ends half way to land's end.
Back at Munramchattram I discover that one of the pukka buildings is a police outpost and in its front yard there is an obelisk that is the cenotaph for Dhanushkodi's dead. The ground at the foot of the obelisk is littered with coconut husks, inadvertently bringing Khmer Rouge ghoulishness to the hapless victims of a half-forgotten cyclone. Looking at the coconut shells I wonder how long it will be before the memory of the Tsunami victims are similarly defiled. 41 years since the cyclone, perhaps we can use that as a yardstick.
The words on the cenotaph are still legible though and they tell us that the Dhanushkodi Cyclone of 1964 struck at midnight on December 22 and lasted till the evening of the next day:
"On 22 December at 2355 hours, while entering Dhanushkodi Railway Station the train no. 653 Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger, which left Pamban for Dhanushkodi with 110 passengers and 5 railway staff was hit by a cyclonic storm with high tidal wave and the whole train got submerged under water, killing all 115 on the spot."
"In addition over 200 persons in Dhanushkodi died in the storm. All dwelling houses were blown to pieces and marooned and Pamban Bridge was washed away by high tidal waves."
There is nothing more to be done after that but to sit on Munramchattram's beautiful beach with a coffee as the sun sets on a glassy sea and fishing boats bob up and down in the gentle swell, and wonder how things that look so benign can be whipped up to a life destroying frenzy.
After he makes another futile attempt to get me to visit Kothandaraswamy I placate Senthil by saying that I would like to see the Ramalingesvara temple in town. But when we reach town I satisfy myself by taking a good look at one of the Gopurams, incidentally the first I've seen since landing at Chennai yesterday. Then Senthil insists on showing me the very ordinary house that is the family abode of Rameshwaram's most famous son President Abdul Kalam. Nearby is a "famous" shop that displays seashells and as far as Senthil is concerned it's the eight wonder of the world. The whole thing reeks of a tourist trap so I tell him that we should go and get a beer and some food. Thankfully in spite of all the religion, Rameshwaram has shops selling liquor and a couple of non-veg dhabas where I pick up something that looks like Chicken 65 and something unidentifiable that was originally a goat, and the two of us repair to Rameshwaram's waterfront.
The lights of Kothandaraswamy and Munramchattram are discernible far across the bay. Dhanushkodi has no electricity so presumably everyone is safely tucked in out there. Senthil drinks his beer in a flash like a child would gulp his first coca cola and receives a lecture on the merits of drinking slowly. Later we stop in the bazaar to shoot the Gopuram and pick up some water. I decide to smuggle another beer into the Retiring Room but pick up a small bottle of Golconda wine instead. It tastes like cough syrup and has the same soporific effect. For as long as anyone can remember Madurai and Rameshwaram have been linked by rail. Even the relevant page on Southern Railway's wonderful timetable has been titled Rameshwaram-Madurai-Coimbatore for decades. Not surprisingly when half the route between Madurai and Manamadurai was converted to broad gauge, some genius in Southern Railway just had to ensure that the first BG train from Manamadurai would leave for Madurai much before the first MG train could get in from Rameshwaram! There is no option but to take a bus between the two Madurai's, but first I have to catch a train on the sea bridge.
So I've concocted a plan that on reflection is a little hair brained. I'll wait on the road bridge across the Pamban Channel for the first train out of Rameshwaram - the 794 Passenger that leaves at 7.30 am. After shooting it at various spots on the viaduct, I'll race ahead in Senthil's auto and reach Mandapam station seconds before the train does and board it. And at Manamadurai I'll switch to a bus for the final 50 km to Madurai. For such a plan to succeed Senthil Kumar the auto driver has to be carefully briefed the previous night and be ready and waiting when I stride out of the retiring room at 6.30 am.
Naturally Senthil is nowhere to be seen and it isn't difficult to guess where he could have gone. The stragglers of the early morning Sethu Express from Tambaram are still milling about in the forecourt and Senthil must have won a fare. The remaining auto drivers are having a field day with the bewildered North Indians, either taking them away on exorbitant fares or laughing derisively when a few choose to use their own motive power. One of them sidles up to me but I ignore him. He moves away pointing at me and saying loudly to his colleagues "Navy, Navy"! It's the first time somebody has accused me of having any kind of a military bearing!
Just as I'm about to give up on him, Senthil makes a sheepish appearance. Though we still have plenty of time before 794 hits the viaduct, he receives another lecture. This time on the general unreliability of auto wallahs and how this is a nationwide affliction. Chastened he takes a short cut that sees us run parallel to the yard for a short while. The Sethu Express is being shunted into the pit lines and I take the obligatory photographs.
Since we still have time I ask Senthil to take me to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, the hill where Hanuman is said to have surveyed the scene before his giant leap to Lanka. If Hanuman had indeed paused there, then the view must be really fantastic. On the way we stop to get a better look at the Ramalingesvara's Gopuram and to my surprise the structure that looked dark and imposing at night is actually coated in cream paint and looks garishly 20th Century.
As we approach the town's beach, last night's boozing haven, a stunning sight greets us and I forget all about Hanuman's hilltop. Hundreds of pilgrims have gathered on the beach, some taking a ritual bath in the sea, others sitting in orderly rows on the sand repeating the shlokas chanted by priests, one for each group. I move among them taking photos, trying to capture the spirit of the moment. But that much of blind faith is eventually overpowering and I flee quickly, back to what truly moves me - trains on long bridges.
The Pamban road bridge was inaugurated in 1988 by Rajiv Gandhi and like everything else that was built in that era, named after his mother. Though cloaked in an ugly maroon, the bridge is a fine piece of engineering and has very aesthetic lines. While the Pamban Viaduct is low and probably has to open its drawbridge even if a dinghy has to pass, the Indira Gandhi Bridge simply arches its back right over the shipping channel, totally dwarfing the rail bridge in the process. And when a couple of trucks roar by on their way to Rameshwaram bearing goods that once went by train, it is evident that this dominance is not just physical.
But until 1988, the rail viaduct was the sole link to the mainland. No wonder back in 1965 after it was swept away, a replacement had to be built in record time. And a young engineer who hadn't yet heard of a railway through the Konkan or a Metro in Delhi, got the opportunity to make his mark.
The view is magnificent, augmented by the clear sunny morning and the widening seas on both sides of the twin bridges. Looking back towards Mandapam I expect to see the mainland hulking over the Channel, like thunderclouds over a plain. But Mandapam is at the end of a long and slender cape and the coastline recedes into the distance, making the mainland look just like another island. At the foot of the rail bridge at the Pamban end fishing boats have lined up with the night's catch and a raucous auction seems to be in progress.
I decide to spend more time on the bridge so I give up my plan of racing 794 Passenger to Mandapam Station and move to Plan B, which is to bus it all the way to Madurai. I'll lose out on half a train ride but will certainly gain on time. For now I'll just enjoy the scene and try to imagine what it must have been like that December night in 1964.
A Golden Rock hoot from Pamban station shakes me out of my reverie. Soon 794 Passenger makes the obligatory 25-kph entry and slows down further as it approaches the drawbridge. With just the unending sea as the backdrop, 794's steady progress across the viaduct is a stirring sight for any railfan and I am in raptures. Senthil has been warned to keep his engine running so that we can race ahead and shoot the train from different vantage points. Luckily there is hardly any other traffic that we can get in the way of and unlike most other bridges of its size and importance, the Indira Gandhi Setu doesn't seem to be manned even one suspicious policeman!
After 794 disappears into Mandapam, we retrace our steps to the Pamban bus stop where Senthil gives me a crash course on express buses and the ones to avoid. It's time to say goodbye, he's been a good companion and I tip him generously. He bids me to visit again though I'm sure the thought must have occurred to him several times since yesterday, that I should ideally be confined to an institution!
I catch the first bus that comes my way and find out that I will have to change at Ramanathapuram. Here I manage to bolt a couple of idlis for breakfast while the driver of the Madurai bus honks his horn, the conductor yells at me to hurry up and the restaurateur advises me to relax and eat slowly!
We've already overtaken 794 Passenger on the first leg but it catches up when I change buses. We meet it again when we reach a level crossing on the highway well before it can, and have to wait for it to pass. Near Manamadurai we soar over the MG line that goes to Virudunagar and from my vantage it looks used. Glancing across at the station, I see that 794 hasn't yet arrived, so by taking the bus I've given myself more time to see Madurai.
After Manamadurai the road is sandwiched between the new BG line and the Vaigai River, both bereft of any excitement. No train on the track and no water in the river, that's life after GC for you.
At Madurai I'm deposited at a bus station that seems to be on the outskirts of town. I have to take a city bus to the railway station, which is near the center. With me on the new bus is a surly North Indian business traveler who looks like he's had enough of the south. He snarls when somebody accidentally blocks his way, is rude to the conductor and deliberately leaves his suitcase in everybody's way. A reminder of Delhi I don't really need with more than half the trip remaining!
At Madurai station I am politely informed that I will need to show a travel ticket to leave my bag in the cloakroom. I say that I'll be traveling in the evening and will be buying a ticket later. But that won't do, "just give us any train ticket!" So I proffer my ticket for the 6701 from Tambaram, used the day before yesterday and much to my surprise, they accept it! Elated I decide to walk to the Meenakshi Temple instead of taking a rickshaw; it's time to see the Mothers of all Gopurams.
My first view of the West Gopuram is from a traffic policeman's platform at the far end of a long street leading up to the temple. The gopuram is marvelous at that distance just like in the history textbooks of 25 years ago; tall and imposing, putting the encircling urban mayhem to shame. But up close, I'm in for a rude shock. What I have always believed to be stone and rock carvings look like cement and plastic. And horror of horrors; all the sculptures are painted in reds, pinks and blues! I quickly open my guidebook -I haven't bothered to read the entry for the Meenakshi Temple till now. It seems all the Gopurams were rebuilt in the 20th century and are renovated every 12 years. And there's a name for this disappointment - stucco, whatever that means. Just as well that the history texts of 25 years ago were all in black and white!
A policeman tells me that the two sanctum sanctorums are closed but that suits me fine, I'm interested in the structure, not so much in the spirit within. Thankfully, the rest of the Meenakshi Temple doesn't disappoint with its pillared halls, intricate sculptures and colourful bazaars. The scene outside the main sanctum is surreal - dozens of pilgrims lying in rows, a siesta before the genuflection!
Prompted by my guidebook I decide to walk further to the Thirumala Nayak Palace, constructed by the same royal dynasty that built the Meenakshi Temple. It's an interesting place but crying out for better treatment from tourists and minders alike. Though restoration is evident the large open courtyard hasn't been paved and is filled with rows of cheap steel folding chairs for the daily son et lumière. Schoolgirls doing SUPW are sweeping the halls, deliberately throwing up great clouds of dust in the process while other schoolchildren run riot throughout the palace creating a din loud enough to rouse old Thirumala Nayak himself.
In the typically shabby museum with marvellous though badly labeled sculptures dating from the 8th century, I come across a print by Thomas and William Daniell, depicting the main hall as they saw it in the late 18th century. There are no gargoyles and other fancy embellishments in the Daniell s' painting. I guess the ASI's restorers are a confused lot, recreating history instead of restoring it!
It's time for a late lunch and the guidebook recommends the mutton curry and parathas at a restaurant called Muniyandi Vilas, not far from the station. I approach a shopkeeper for directions and he points to the scruffy dhaba next door and says "Muniyandi Vilas - here!" It seems Muniyandi Vilas is a generic name for a certain kind of dhaba, and this is one is rather unappealing. So much for learned guidebooks!
Walking back towards the station, each new street becomes progressively narrower till I have to admit I'm lost. There's no option but to hail a passing cycle rickshaw to ferry me to the station. On the way I see in the time table that I may be just in time to catch the 6127 Guravayur Express at 1540, which will get me to Tirunelveli much before my original choice, the 715 Passenger from Erode.
We reach the station on the stroke of 1540 but I'm banking on 6127 being late. And it is, by more than half an hour, giving me time to grab a quick bite. The lone shop in the main foyer sells samosas and dal vadas. One bite of the vada reveals that it is stale and the shopkeeper immediately removes the rest from display and doesn't charge me for mine. Later when I reach the far end of platform 2 where the GS coaches of 6127 will come to a halt, I notice a well-appointed Comesum hidden at the end of Platform 1 that I could have gone to. Gastronomically speaking I have to say, it's been a rather dismal day!
6127, which takes the longest possible route between Chennai and the temple town of Guruvayur near Trichur in Kerala, finally arrives behind Erode's 18598 WDP 3A. The first carriage is not a SLR but a GM's saloon. While that worthy relaxes in splendid isolation, there is a mad scramble for the coaches next door. The GS coaches are already full up and half of Madurai is trying to get in. After a minute or two of hesitation, I stride down the length of the train inspecting the reserved coaches, selecting one with an empty doorway. I'm a bit uneasy about this because southern TTE's are rather strict about traveling in the right class and entering reserved compartments but hopefully I'll be ok if I offer to pay the difference in fare promptly.
The departure is a bit of a farce. The Guard, who is not in the line of sight, apparently changes his mind after first showing the green flag. Seeing this a staff member midway on the platform promptly waves his red flag, which the Under Guard is slow to pick up and the Driver completely oblivious of. Frantic flag waving by the Under Guard finally results in rapid notching down and a jerky stop. I wonder if the wandering GM has noticed. Probably not.
My doorway is a bad selection because it's in direct line with the afternoon sun. All the eastern doors have been taken and all that walking in Madurai means I am too tired to stand and have to sit with my feet on the footboard. From time to time I feel a stream of moisture on my face and hands and I hope it's nothing worse than water. And to top it all except for a faint line of hills in the far west, we are passing through rather uninspiring countryside yet again.
At Virudunagar Jn I look vainly for any sign of MG activity but in vain. There's not even a derelict wagon in sight. A man on the platform says that MG operations have ceased but I don't know if he's understood my question correctly. Sans MG, there is little to note in Virudunagar except that the recently converted line to Tenkasi keeps us company for a while before veering off to the west.
At the next stop Satur, an army of college boys, who must have been at a sporting meet upstate, disembark and stream along the platform in a youthful flood. In a flash of pure inspiration I ask one of them his coach number and I run back along the train with my bag to S 6. As suspected, S6 is virtually empty now, as also two more coaches to its rear and for the rest of the journey I'm the sole occupant of an 8-berth compartment!
We continue on our dreary way, with the WDP 3A chugging on unspectacularly. The occasional loop is taken at a maddening 15 kph. Perhaps it's the GM effect, or maybe the south is more by the book than the north. At Nalli we are made to wait for the Tuticorin - Mysore Express behind another WDP 3A and at Kovilpatti we return the compliment to a double-headed WDM 2, coal carrying BOXN rake that could only have come from Tuticorin Port.
A TTE comes along, and I tell him about the status of my ticket. "No problem", he says, "just pay Rs. 50". When I give him the money he asks me whether I want a receipt, to which I sigh and shake my head in the negative. The difference between northern and southern TTE's is that in the south they do it with finesse.
Vanchi Maniyachchi Junction is as endearing as it's name - a neat, no nonsense junction for the branch to Tuticorin on the Gulf Of Manaar. On the other side there is a triangle, avoiding a reversal for trains from Nagercoil that may be bound for Tuticorin and vice versa. And over to the west, a break in the distant hills earmarks the location of the Sengottai Gap, through which I hope to pass into Kerala on the morrow.
The light is fading fast and the station tube lights are on when we stop at Naraikkinar to let the Nellai Express go by. The western horizon is radiant in shades of orange and yellow and the MACL's add to the beauty with their pinpricks of red, moving me to reach for my camera. When I spot the approaching headlight of the Nellai I stand in its path hoping to capture a stunning image. As the headlight glows bigger on the LCD screen I can feel the hair on the back of my neck go stiff. And though I jump out of the way well in time, the picture I get isn't worth even that little bit of risk.
No Retiring Rooms are available says the matronly attendant in Tirunelveli, so I have to look for hostelry outside. Station Road looks busy and welcoming with brightly lit restaurants and shops on both sides. After shaking off the auto guys, I survey the scene and take a liking to Tirunelveli instantly. Turning off the station road into Madurai Road I find my target hotel quite easily. The Sri Janakiram has good clean rooms, and a rooftop restaurant where a live band is thumping out Tamil hits. Alas, there's no bar or non-veg food.
My guidebook tells me that both can be found at the nearby Aryaas Hotel. It also tells me that the old town is rather interesting with houses painted in blue, reminiscent of Jodhpur. Besides there is the Kanthimathi Nellaiyappa Temple holding out the prospect of an authentic old-style Gopuram. So after I've showered and changed the options are quite clear - spiritual or spirited pleasures? A slice of history or a nip from some southern distillery? Forgive me Lord the flesh is weak; I head for the bar. Early morning finds me retracing my steps to the station, feeling a little disappointed that I can't in all honesty include Tirunelveli in my list of places visited. Just as I turn into station road, an autowallah stops me to say he would like me to complete the rest of the journey in greater comfort in his vehicle. The station is within sight, not even 500 m away, so just for the heck of it, I ask him how much. "Twenty Rupees" is the matter of fact reply and I laugh derisively. The north is the north, and the south is the south but all auto drivers apparently come from somewhere in between.
After another hurried breakfast of (what else?) yummy idlis, I reach the station with 5 minutes to spare. I board the train waiting on platform 1 when I notice another one also filled with passengers on the next platform. The nearest destination board is in incomprehensible Tamil so turning to the other passengers I point at the floor and enquire hopefully, "Sengottai?"
"Tiruchendur!" is the collective reply and I quickly scramble to the other train, where of course there are no empty seats left. But I intend to be at the door most of the way anyway and all I need is some space on an upper berth for my bag. The 741 Passenger is the first train out of Tirunelveli for Quilon in Kerala at 6.55 am and is followed by the 6383 Express at 9.45. I've chosen 741 over the Express because a stopping passenger is a better way to truly appreciate the ghat section, a journey I've been contemplating for many years now.
We depart on the dot and the first surprise of the day comes along as soon as we've cleared station limits. The Tenkasi line is separate and we are on it, while the Tiruchendur line is gauntleted with the BG mainline to Nagercoil. The gauntleted track has different signals for BG and MG though they are mounted on the same pole. The two gauges separate after the Tambrapani River that lies in between Tirunelveli and its twin town of Palayankottai. But we veer off to the NW before we reach the river and stop at Tirunelveli Town, where many people are waiting, some with huge sacks of rice.
The Tambrapani is the only perennial river of southern Tamil Nadu because its headwaters receive both the SW and NE Monsoons. Its source is only 60 km or so away in the Ashambu Hills and it flows into the sea midway between Tuticorin and Tiruchendur, but its heart is a large as its course is short, because the Tambrapani is truly a divine gift for the people who live near it.
If the landscape of southern Tamil Nadu has disappointed me thus far, then the Tambrapani Valley makes up for it in no time. For the first time there is genuine greenery in the trees and golden paddy in the fields. Coconut, banana and areca nut abound and thankfully the dreaded Kikar is nowhere to be seen. Getting closer by the minute are the blue Ashambu Hills, the southern most range of the Western Ghats. I strain to pick out the highest peak known as Agasthyamalai (where the sage Agastya did penance), but at that distance all the hills look equally high. And when we finally cross the Tambrapani River, it's heartening to see that it's full of clean and clear water and there are many villagers frolicking in it.
It's amazing how the two approaches to Tirunelveli are so radically different. Yesterday on the broad gauge we passed through acres of wasteland, while today on the metre gauge, it's quite literally a breadbasket. For at every station, there are passengers waiting with sacks of grain and satisfied expressions, the kind worn by people who know they've just made a killing.
As if to complete this happy picture, the line to Tenkasi is in good shape and for the most part 741 Pass rockets along at 75 kph behind yet another nicely turned out Golden Rocker. Much to my delight the semaphores on this section are of the 3 aspect upper quadrant type, hinting that this may once have been a much more important line than it is today. The line was constructed in 1901, so a few charming touches remain like the red tiled station houses, stone water tanks and platforms with magnificent Rain Trees growing out of them.
When it seems certain that we are going to run full tilt into Agastya's hills, 741 curves northwards, recrosses the Tambrapani and stops at Ambasamudram where there are a wide variety of passengers waiting. The hardy, farming types are for 741Pass while office goers, traders and college students wait for our opposite number to ferry them to Tirunelveli. 742 arrives towing another YDM 4 behind it, and after everyone has finished milling around in the time-honoured fashion of all Indian train passengers, departs before we do.
A little later we arrive at the charming Kilakkadaiyam, where the station house is draped in pink bougainvillea and tall trees obviate the need for a platform canopy. We are running a few minutes late now, the single crossing having taken out a large chunk from the schedule. Then at unpronounceable Kizhapuliyur, we are held up for a while because some large parcels have to be loaded onto the SLR. So more delay, though nobody is unduly perturbed. All passengers of Passenger Trains in this country know what is their lot.
Just before Tenkasi we pass one of the largest wind farms I've ever seen, with what must easily be a hundred windmills, all pointing towards the southeast. As I vainly try and capture the wind farm and the train in the same frame, I suddenly remember Suzlon and its mega IPO last year, an opportunity I decided to pass because I wasn't convinced about wind generated electricity or the promoters. Just as well, because here at Tenkasi barely 10 % of the windmills are turning!
The recently converted BG line from Virudunagar accompanies us into Tenkasi from a couple of klicks out. At the station we find the twice-weekly Pothigai Express from Chennai stabled on the platform itself. Apparently Gauge Conversion these days does not include putting in place new pit lines. Perhaps they check the rake at Madurai, before it returns to Egmore, who knows. Let's hope the wheels don't ever come off between here and Madurai! Though we share the platform with the Pothigai our half of it is unpaved, which is in keeping with the step motherly treatment that has been the lot of the metre gauge for some years now. Still, Tenkasi is a pretty little junction with probably the best looking trees that I have ever seen adorning a railway platform.
As if knowing that it is unwanted, 741 doesn't linger long at Tenkasi but hurries on to Sengottai, which serves as the coaching depot for this coast to coast metre gauge route. On the way we get our first good look at the outriders of the Cardamom Hills that stretch northwards from the Sengottai Gap.
Sengottai's tranquility is going to be shattered very soon, when big brother pushes westwards from Tenkasi. But for now it retains the unhurried aura of a metre gauge base, with a couple of spare rakes on pit lines, an ART and a departmental rake of BC's and flats. The metre gauge platforms are low so the superfluous pedestrian overbridge where I am shooting from has a layer of goat turd on it that is impossible to avoid stepping on. The things we have to endure for our passion!
I expect the climb to begin after Sengottai, since that's the name given to the Pass that we will traverse to reach the Malabar Coast. But it's only at the entrance of the next station Bhagavathipuram that we pass a sign saying "Ghat Section Begins, 28 kmph night, 30 kmph day". This prompts a wry chuckle; no doubt the 2-kph margin makes a big difference to safety!
At Bhagavathipuram the hills are in front and to the right of us. Soon after leaving the station we ascend along the side of the ones on the right and within no time we have great views of the fertile plain we have left behind. With a pretty blue lake at the base of our hill and coconut & banana groves stretching into the distance, this is indeed the Tamil Nadu of the movies.
The ascent is fairly steep until the alignment finally gives up and takes recourse to a long tunnel that curiously has "welcome" painted on the entrance in bright red on a yellow background. But the odour of bat droppings mixed with diesel exhaust quickly brings the lie to that cheery invitation. This is the Aryankavu tunnel and somewhere inside about 672 m from the western end, we cross from Tamil Nadu into Kerala!
Bursting out into bright sunlight just as the exhaust threatens to overpower the senses of those like me foolish enough to remain at the door, we enter the picturesque Aryankavu station overlooked by the sheer face of the hill we've just burrowed through, and shaded by a gorgeous Rain Tree. Here we wait for a long time for the first departure from Quilon the 744 Passenger to Tirunelveli, giving me the opportunity to chat with the Driver.
He says the steepest grade is 1:50 and is to be found on the other side of Aryankavu. Banking is not required for rakes that have less than 10 coaches. He's been on the throttle all the way from Tirunelveli and smiles when I say that I enjoyed the high speeds before Tenkasi. After the ghat section ends at Punalur, the maximum speed increases to 60 kph till Kundara and to 65 kph for the run to Quilon.
On the subject of gauge conversion he says that the earthwork has been completed between Punlur and Quilon and that Tiruchendur to Sengottai will be converted by 2007. Only the hill section will remain as is, unless a new alignment is built through an area known as Kulathupuzha. This has me shaking my head in disbelief. If the Sengottai Gap has been known for generations as the easiest route through the southernmost section of the Western Ghats, then why look for a phantom alignment elsewhere?
Even the piecemeal gauge conversion is a folly on a grand scale. The hill section sees 6 up and down trains (or 12 movements) a day while the remainder of the route to Tiruchendur sees just 8 movements a day. Moreover, there are no goods trains or any "strategic" establishments along the route. Why incur such enormous expenditure and still leave the job half done? Surely, rather than endure the double change of gauge and the inevitable delays, most travelers will just shrug and go by bus.
744 finally shows up grunting up the grade from Tenmalai and shortly afterwards we reluctantly leave scenic Aryankavu. By now I have attracted the attention of fellow passengers and one of them tells me that I would do well to stay on the left hand side throughout. That is good advice because the railway clings to one side of the hills for most of the way so one doesn't have to worry about missing out on some wonderful sight on the other side.
After Aryankavu there are a couple of halt stations, both unique in their own way. The first is Edapalayam, which looks like it is in the middle of a plantation because of the stately trees lining the track on both sides. And then there is Kalthuruthy, which has a level crossing in the middle of the rudimentary platform, so everybody has to wait until the train restarts!
One thing that is immediately noticeable about this southern section of the Cardamom Hills (or Enamalai as they are known locally) is that they are covered thickly with trees. Even where the bare rock is exposed on some of the hillsides, there are trees grimly clinging on. Thus, unlike other hill sections in the country I am yet to see the telltale scars of landslides.
Unlike the more famous Palghat Gap, the Sengottai Gap is narrow and was apparently difficult to conquer by road and rail alike. Thus from Aryankavu we have been quite literally in a narrow pass, about halfway up its northern wall. The road that also makes use of the Gap keeps close company on the floor of the pass, reminding me that I have to be alert for the famous arched viaduct that has become the defining image of this beautiful railway. On the other side of the road is a small river and immediately beyond it, the southern wall of the pass. This is picture postcard stuff and it's a wonder that SR doesn't use more images from this line for publicity purposes.
Even though I have prepared myself, the viaduct hovers into view quite unexpectedly as we emerge from a long curved cutting whose sheers walls closely hug the passing train, as if seeking to imprison it. The curve continues through the length of the viaduct, which seems to have been built to span the gap between two adjacent hills rather than to cross a river or a road. With the front of the train nicely on the viaduct, a lorry and an Ambassador on the road below swim into the viewfinder, adding a nice touch to my picture.
The deft engineering continues after the viaduct, as the train plunges into a tunnel while still on the same curve that began at the cutting before the viaduct. But the train has to slow down here because a down gradient has a permanent 15-kph caution order. Five minutes later we are at Tenmalai, yet another quaint crossing station set amongst magnificent rain trees.
At Tenmalai we have to wait for 750 Passenger for Sengottai to show up. Ordinarily this crossing would have been further up the line at Ottakal or Edamann, but we are late by almost an hour. Using the opportunity to have another chat with the Driver, I learn something new. Each station in the ghat section has a lamppost at both ends that is 180 m from the stationmaster's office. During bad weather or fog, the SM uses the distant lamps as yardsticks to gauge the visibility. He also tells me that he is based in Quilon and besides this metre gauge section, he knows the road from Shoranur to Tirunelveli via Nagercoil (BG). That's a hell of a range, and scenic to boot. Not for the first time, I wish I had his job!
The average elevation of the Sengottai Gap is 160 m, and the height posted at each station bears this out. Aryankavu is 256 masl, Tenmalai 168 and Ottakal 192. So although this is a full-fledged hill section with the usual complement of tunnels, cuttings and gradients, it's also quite a hot one because of the low altitude and the tropical sun. But it's beautiful enough for the first time traveler to stay rooted to the door, and I don't budge, except for the usual walkabout at every station.
After Tenmalai we go through another tunnel with rough, unfinished walls and emerge on to a stunning vista. The narrow pass we've been in ever since Aryankavu opens out completely and I can see row after row of low tree-covered hills stretching into the distance. Here and there are signs of civilization of course, such as a hamlet or pylons bearing high-tension electric cables but the overall feeling is like being in an endless forest. In the mean time the permanent way continues to hug the contour lines and with this new all round vista, it is now possible to trace its route on the hills ahead of us.
After Edamann, which has a charming Kerala style station house, we are no longer running along the top or on the sides of hills, but in between them. Besides the hills are very low now, more like hillocks. The ghat section is petering out now to be replaced by the pastoral scenery that is typical of central Kerala; areca nut and rubber trees planted in long parallel rows like soldiers on parade, banana groves in lowland close to the track and the ever present coconut everywhere else. And hidden behind the tree line, the homesteads of the owners, with a few painted in bright pinks and greens signifying a son remitting Dinars from the Gulf.
Finally Punalur at 33 m above sea level signals the end of the ghat section and the beginning of another bout of gauge conversion. The station seems to be more important than it appears because it has a manager (instead of a master) and a retiring room for anybody unfortunate enough to be stuck there for the night.
The Driver was right about the pace of conversion for after Punalur the BG earthwork is almost complete and interferes with the MG in such a manner as to impose sudden speed restrictions on the latter. To be thoughtlessly replaced is bad enough, but to be tormented by your replacement is criminal!
At Kottarakara the 6384 Express to Tirunelveli is waiting for us with its First Class Coach and (surprisingly) two parcel vans. Ordinarily this crossing would have taken place at Kundara, but we have been slow through the hills.
At Ezhukone, the ASM is a serious young woman stiffly holding out her green flag. Not a flicker of emotion crosses her face when she realizes I've just taken her picture. Ezhukone must have a reputation for determined people because soon after the station the BG alignment is rudely interrupted by someone's house, someone who hasn't yet vacated and watches our MG train go by with some longing. "Keep them in court as long as you can", I think to myself, silently wishing him good luck.
Kundara, a sizable town comes and goes in two editions East and Kundara itself. The train is emptying rapidly but I cling to the door, drinking in the Kerala countryside. Big mistake not everyone is as pleasant as the passing scenery. An elderly man in a shirt and lungi who has suddenly materialized in the nearest compartment says something to me in Malayalam. Guessing that he wants to get down at the next stop, I nod, say ok and turn back to look out, intending to make way by stepping down quickly as soon as the train stops. Suddenly, continuing to mouth words in his native tongue he grabs me by the shirtfront with both hands and shoves me backwards and I almost lose my balance. Turns out he is the contractor-stationmaster of Chandannatop Halt returning from some official errand and it's his sole prerogative to stand at the door when his station arrives! When I remonstrate, he tells me in perfect English that I should have understood what he meant in the first place. Deaf to my protests he continues to rail at me while the train stops at his halt, and restarts, so I can't resist a parting comment. It obviously hits home because he gets into an apoplectic rage, and even tries to red flag the Driver to stop while I leer at him from the door.
Feeling silly as well as disgusted I finally take a seat. The other passengers are sympathetic but I'm now angry with myself for that last comment because he was after all an elderly man, if not a gentleman. What if he had succeeded in stopping the train, forcing me to explain myself to the Guard? All sympathy would have quickly disappeared! Luckily, I don't have to mull about this for too long because a double electrified track hovers into view signaling the end of our journey.
Quilon Jn is typical of the hundreds of BG stations in the country that have a medium sized yard nothing terribly odd and nothing worth noting either. The MG section has been allowed to go to seed and like everywhere else where a narrower gauge meets big brother, is treated like an outcast. Thanks to make up allowances, we are only 25 minutes late in the end. Still mindful of the earlier incident, I let everyone else disembark before me!
Walking down the platform I see that an Express has come silently into the nearest BG platform. As befits the true rail fan I try and get a glimpse of the destination boards and nearly jump out of my skin, because they read Guwahati-Ledo-Guwahati! There can be only one train in these parts with such bizarre destination boards. Twelve years ago on a hot summer night, I had stood on that very platform waiting for this train that was already about 12 hours late starting from Trivandrum. An incredible 80 odd hours later I had staggered out from my 2nd Sleeper at Guwahati, swearing that I would never take another train in my life again. Yes, the dreaded TrivandrumGuwahati Express has come back to haunt me and going by the totally misleading destination boards, it remains true to character. With an involuntary shudder I walk quickly to the exit.
Back in the station long after the Guwahati Express is safely away and a hearty lunch of puffed rice, sambhar and avial, I join one of the long queues at the booking office. The famous southern discipline breaks down a little bit as queue jumpers and favour seekers incite squabbles. Eventually I get a ticket and head for the footbridge to survey the station. Though the route is wired till Trivandrum, diesels are in charge of all the trains. Over on the scruffy MG platform, the express from Tirunelveli has arrived giving me the opportunity to bid a final goodbye to Golden Rock's wonderful YDM4's, easily the smartest looking and best kept MG locos I've seen.
My train is the 363 Quilon- Trivandrum Passenger, a favourite for tourists who have come off the backwaters and are heading for the beaches to the south Varkala and Kovalam. A bunch of British surfers in the next coach attract the attention of people at every station and there is much catcalling, pointing and waving. Strange behaviour in an area that should really be quite used to tourists of all kinds. Our route is close to the coast now and as we cross the Parar Lagoon the air brake rake perfectly complements the blue waters, presenting me with the final image of a superb South Indian excursion.
45 minutes after leaving Quilon I get down at Varkala and an hour later I am floating in the warm surf of Pampanasam Beach, trying to tear my eyes away from a bunch of bikini clad Spanish girls doing Tai Chi on the beach.