” Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.” –
The biggest difference between driving a car and riding a motorcycle is, while riding a bike, you feel the earth slipping under your feet and the adrenaline rushes to your brain, which probably was the reason for the unknown author to make the quote above.
Motorcycle and it’s sibling scooter are mostly used for commute in India and other Asian countries unlike the west where motorcycle driving is a hobby or an adventure sport. In the West, occasionally, you may see someone going to office on a bike, like Shia LeBeouf riding a mean machine to office in Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps. Roughly one in every three households has a two-wheeler in India and 4.5 million scooters and motorcycles are sold every year. The fact is, the two wheeler is not used only for commute; it’s also a delivery vehicle and from the milkman to Amazon everyone uses it for delivery of goods. This Video clip will shows a milkman on his scooter.
The young generation, today ride bike not just for commute. There are bike clubs all over the country and many dedicated web sites to share biking experience and for seeking advise for a trip. Leh and Ladak have become the Mecca for bike riders and every year around July, thousands of enthusiastic riders drive up to Himalayas from every nook and corner of the country. Only a true biker can understand the spirit of adventure in riding a motorcycle across one of the highest motorable roads in the world.
An obituary in The Economist and two books on Travel inspired me to go on a long bike ride after many years. The obituary in The Economist is the most inspiring piece I have read in recent years. It was about Ian Hibell, the greatest cyclist the world has seen. One fine morning he decided to take a break from work, mounted a bicycle and started on a journey which lasted 40 odd years. In the course of his 40-year traveling life he went the equivalent of ten times round the equator, covering 6,000 miles or so a year. He became the first man to cycle the Darien Gap in Panama, and the first to cycle from the top to the bottom of the American continent.
The next one which caught my attention was Investment Biker: Around the World with Jim Rogers. He and his then girlfriend went on a 22 months, 52 countries trip on two BMW bikes. They crossed Siberia and traveled across China; amazing stuff.
The third was bicycle diaries of Alastair Humphreys. At the age of 24, he left his home in England and travelled around the world, covering Africa, Americas and Eurasia for 4 years. I strongly recommend his Ten Lessons from the Road to all young people. It will definitely motivate you to take a journey which can be a life defining experience.
Inspired by all these stories, I was determined to do a bicycle trip from Kanyakumari to Chennai (about 1,000 Kilometers) in Tamil Nadu biking along the east coast. Bought a bicycle and started on small weekend trips. It was challenging initially but slowly I could manage about 60 – 70 KMs rides on weekends.
But Dr Mohan asked me not to push myself too much. So I decided to go on a motorcycle instead. That part of east coast always fascinated me with some famous places to visit, namely Kanyakumari, Rameswaram, Tarangambadi, Velankanni and Mahabalipuram. Renuka, my wife who had a lot of reservations on the bicycle ride, supported my decision to go on a motorcycle ride.
I live in Hyderabad 800 KMs away from the coast and I thought there was no point in driving an additional 800 KMs to start the journey. So I sent the bike to Madurai and decided to start from there: the following was the plan.
Day 1: August 1, 2014. Madurai – Kanyakumari – 235 KMs.
I flew to Madurai and met my colleague Murali who had collected my Bike from the transporter. I was still having second thoughts if I could pull this off. After all, the last time I rode a bike long distance was in 1993, when JK (my brother) and I rode from Pune to Chennai travelling across Karnataka. So I asked Murali if he could come with me till Kanyakumari in his car. He was more than happy to travel with me.
So on a hot afternoon in August (there is no other weather in Tamil Nadu; it’s either hot or hotter) I donned my Jacket, knee guards, gloves, riding boots and helmet and set-out a on 4 day, 1500 KMs trip.
I told Murali that we would stop for a cup of tea once we crossed the city limits and hit the highway. As soon as we hit the highway I could see, in my rear view mirror, his car headlights flashing. He was stopping at a Coffee shop.
I dismounted, removed my helmet and went into the shop. The shopkeeper asked me; “Are you the one who sped past just now?” — “நீங்கதான் இப்போ பைக்லே வேகமா கிராஸ் பண்ணிட்டு போனீங்களா?” –
I said “Yes!”
“I thought some youth was going!” – By youth, he meant a Young Man. “நான் யாரோ யூத் தான் போறாங்கன்னு நெனைச்சேன்!”
I asked him “don’t I look young?” He smiled and said, “not like that sir. Only young men wear all these stuff and go fast!” —- “அப்படியில்ல சார்! சின்ன பசங்கதான் இந்த மாதிரி டிரஸ் எல்லாம் போட்டுக்கிட்டு பாஸ்டா போவாங்க!” –
I was not sure if he was sarcastic or complementing me; I thanked him anyway and started again. After an hour I could feel my bike was wobbling all over. I reduced the speed but it was not of not much help. Then it struck me. I chose the wrong month for this expedition. The month of August or Aadi in Tamil Calendar was known for fierce winds. There is a Tamil Proverb – ஆடி காத்துல அம்மியும் நகரும் – even a grinding stone will move in Aadi wind. On my right hand side I could see a number of windmills and remembered this place had one of the best wind pressure for operating windmills.
I asked Murali to drive through this phase and reached Kanyakumari before sunset. It’s at the southern tip of India, where Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet. Swamy Vivekananda had meditated on a rock here in 1892 before his trip to Chicago. In 1970 the Government built a memorial to commemorate the occasion and it’s a must see place in Kanyakumari.
Day 2: August 2, 2014. Madurai – Danushkodi. 352 KMs
We left Kanyakumari after watching the sunrise and drove to Rameswaram. We passed the controversial Koodankulam Atomic Power Plant. As expected the roads were excellent in Tamil Nadu, even the state highways were in good shape and soon I was speeding past Tiruchendur Lord Murgan Temple.
Backwaters and Tiruchendur Temple.
We reached Mandapam around 3 PM and enjoyed the the view from Pamban Bridge.
I was in a hurry to get to Danushkodi which was in my bucket list for many years. So I skipped Rameswaram temple and headed straight to Danushkodi.
On 22nd December 1964, a cyclone with a windspeed of 280 KMPH made landfall in Danushkodi wiping out the village and a train which was on it’s way there. An estimated 1800 people were killed and the town was declared unlivable afterwards. The ruins of the ghost town still attract a lot of visitors.
The other interesting fact is, till the mid 1980s, you could buy a train ticket from Madras Egmore to Colombo in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The Boat Mail train took you up to Danushkodi, a short hop across Palk Straights landed you in Talimannar and then you took another train to Colombo. After the storm washed off Danushkodi, you still could take a train up to Rameswaram, cross the straights and take a train again from Talaimannar to Colombo. Paul Theroux has written about this fascinating journey in The Great Railway Bazaar (Penguin Modern Classics).
I drove the bike up to the Naval base and found that for the last 13 KMs, you need 4X4 to reach Danushkodi. The typical Indian jugaad was available and many vans were plying in the route after ‘converting’ to 4 X 4.
The Danushkodi scene kindles different emotions. When I saw ruined railway station, the church and the twisted railway tracks, an overwhelming sorrow struck me. In an era of poor communication, it took days for people to know that relatives and friends who lived in the town perished in the storm. Standing on land’s end of India, I imagined how life would have been so peaceful there till the disaster struck; a town on the beach with lovely views, a railway station, a school and a church with pilgrims to Rameswaram and travelers to Colombo contributing the city’s economy.
Day 3: August 3, 2014. Kodikarai and Pichavaram. 443 KMs
I planned a long ride on the 3rd and started early. After having a darshan at Rameswaram temple, I set out for Vedaranyam and Kodikarai. Vedaranyam also played a part in the freedom struggle. Just as Mahatma Gandhi started the Salt Satyagraha at Dandi, the freedom fighters in Tamil Nadu, started their march from Vedaranyam, known for it’s salt pans.
Ponniyin Selvan, (the beloved of Ponni, a river) is a Historical Novel written by Kalki Krishnamurthy in the 1950s. It’s 2400 Page epic written over a period of 3 years after many years of research. It probably is one of the best historical fiction written in any language, if not the best. We used to read Ponniyin Selvan during every summer vacation in our school days. Breathtaking in scope, in-depth in research and imagination at creative best, the novel would never seize to surprise readers every time he or she reads it. Just like the Sherlock Holmes fans who start reading the book on 1st of January every year, there are Tamil readers who start reading Ponniyin Selvan on 1st January every year. My mom would have read the novel more than two dozen times. The novel traces the early days of King Rajaraja Cholan who becomes the King in 985 AD.
My favourite character in the novel after Vandiyadevan is Poonkuzhali – பூங்குழலி. She has tremendous courage and extraordinary presence of mind. She saves the hero from sinking in the sea, falls in love with the Prince and rejects the chance to become the Queen in the end.
Sorry for the long preamble. But it was necessary to let the readers know why Kodikarai was in my bucket list for many years. Yes Poonkuzhali lived in Kodikarai and rode a boat to Sri Lanka ferrying passengers. A free spirited woman, she would escape to the swamps to watch the flaring methane gas and sing in the wilderness, expressing her anguish and sorrow:
அகக் கடல்தான் பொங்குவதேன்?
நெஞ்சகங்தான் பதைப்பது மேன்?
காட்டினில் வாழ் பறவைகளும்
வீடு நோக்கி ஏகுவரே
மனதில் புயல் அடிப்பதுமேன்?
வாரிதியும் அடங்கி நிற்கும்
மாருதமும் தவழ்ந்து வரும்
காற்று சுழன் றடிப்பதுமேன்?”
Roughly translates to,
When wave-filled seas are still,
why does the inner ocean seethe?
When the earth maid sleeps,
why does the heart feel so hopeless?
Birds in the forest looked for their nests;
the hunter and his woman go homeward;
The sky and the shore are shrouded in silence;
sea waves stop quietly, a breeze crawls softly.
In the mind of that doe-eyed maid,
why does this storm rage?
In the heart of the wayside waif,
why does a whirlwind swirl?
When the sea is ever so quiet,
and a breeze crawls ever so softly,
When the Earth maid is at rest,
why does her heart fill with such sobs?
When ocean waves are quiet,
why does the inner soul overflow?
In the heart of that maid,
why does a whirlwind blow? (Translated by Indra Nelameggam)
I always imagined Kodikarai to be a bustling place. But, the place was very quiet with not a soul in sight. There is a wild life sanctuary and a Lighthouse. For historians, an interesting place of visit could be the remains of the beacon built by the Cholas in the 9th Century. When I visited, the beach was empty and I could not imagine where Poonkuzhali would have lived. Since it was an off season, there was no one in the sanctuary as well.
The beacon from Chola period which was destroyed by the Tsunami (2004), the empty beach and the Lighthouse.
I stopped my time machine travel to Chola period and started my drive to Velankanni to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health or simply known as the Velankanni Church. The church is as popular as some of the best known temples in India and called the Lourdes of the East. When I visited the Church was undergoing some renovation but still it was a magnificent sight.
And the Church before and after renovation
My next stop was Tarangambadi, an equally important historical port. The Danish had established a trading port here in 1620 and built a fort which stands in all its majesty even today. What could have driven people 400 years back to cross oceans and establish a town and build a fort? Watching and going through the fort was an amazing experience. I met a Dutch couple near the fort who were equally thrilled by the visit.
I realized, by now, I was getting late for the Mangrove forest ride in Pichavaram. But I could not miss Poompuhar which was also an ancient city and port with a two thousand year history and more importantly the river Cauvery flowing into the sea nearby. I pushed myself to get there. I could see a lot of tourists where Cauvery meets the sea but the place was very disappointing. There was no effort from the Government or the Tourism Board to spruce up the place and make it lively.
By the time I reached Pichavaram, it was almost twilight. But I did not want to miss the boat ride and I convinced a boatman how desperately I needed the ride. The ride was beyond my imagination. After all, Pichavaram boasts the second largest mangrove forests in the world. The twilight only added a poetic beauty to the ride.
Day 4: August 4, 2014. – மெட்ராஸ் நல்ல மெட்ராஸ் – Madras, Sweet Madras – 212 KMs
I started from Chidambaram in the morning and reached Pondicherry and got caught in the peak office hour traffic. Pondy was not in my list for exploration but I had intended to visit Mahabalipuram. I also wanted to see the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Plant as my dad was one of the engineers who built the Reactor Research Center in the early seventies and I went to school for a year in Mahabalipuram.
I was utterly disappointed and pained to see Mahabalipuram, a city with 1000 years of history. After seeing how the places of interest are beautifully maintained in Europe, it was a shock to say the least. The places around the Colosseum in Rome have not changed probably in the last 70 years. But unauthorized development and the burgeoning population have ruined all places of historical importance in India. A master plan for all the historical cities in India is talked about for decades and nothing gets done. There are a million shops dotting ancient monuments which are World Heritage Sites. I met up with my friend from school who runs the Sunrise Restaurant in Mahabalipuram and exchanged interesting stories from the past.
I reached Chennai and packed the bike back to Hyderabad. Motor Cycle memories don’t fade. Even three and half years after I made the trip, the events are fresh in mind, so is the thrill and back pain, but that’s another story.
I was happy that I followed my golden rule for riding: Ride only from dawn to dusk.
You can watch a small YouTube video about the trip here: