'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

India's Limit

"Kanya Kumari has changed beyond recognition since I first saw it in 1946. Big concrete structures such as the Gandhi memorial and the Vivekananda monument have clearly spoiled the pristine nature of the place!" - S K Pottekkat (writing in the mid 1970s).


I was on a short holiday at home in Kerala (in an eastern suburb of Cochin city) and got this idea of driving down to Kanya Kumari. The distance of within 300 kilometers looked easily manageable.


We start off an early morning. It begins as a smooth drive on the four-lane Cochin bypass goes straight down south. But the fun lasts but a few dozen kilometers and our road shrinks into a proper, potholed Keralan National Highway, thickly lined with semi-urban villages(*). The suburbs of one town straggle into those of the next. Moreover, this highway is also the primary street in almost all towns in our path - and within towns, narrow and choked with traffic. In the so-called rural areas, huge hoardings advertising jewellery and real estate crowd out the greenery - and there still is plenty of traffic to negotiate.

Alleppey is the gateway to the ultra-picturesque lake district but from this road, except for a couple of stagnant canals and a spillway, one sees no evidence of the 'kayals'; we certainly see nothing even remotely beautiful.

An isolated - and brief - flash of scenic splendor is provided by the Arabian sea - as we skirt the Purakkad beach. Then on, the traffic progressively increases and we cut right thru Kollam in the morning rush hour (yes, just as we enter this city, we catch a brief glimpse of what must be a beautiful lake to the east). The suburbs of Kollam continue for dozens of kilometers and then Trivandrum takes over.

As we are to figure out, Trivandrum is no proper metropolis but a point halfway down what must be easily one of the longest continuous stretches of suburbia in the *country* - beginning at Kazhakkoottam, the 'highway' runs thru Karyavattam, Ulloor, Kesavadasapuram (officially, Trivandrum proper begins here), Pattom, Palayam, Thampanoor, then on to Manakad (offical end of Trivandrum) Balaramapuram, Pravachambalam, Neyyattinkara, Parassala, Kalayikkavila (Tamil Nadu begins here),Marthandam,... - a length of well over 50 kilometers.

It takes us 5 hours of continuous and brisk ( almost as brisk as is probably humanly possible) driving to cover the 200 kilometers until our first halt, Thampanoor. We also discover that the State-run hotel 'Chaitram', smack opposite the Railway station in Thampanoor is a terribly slow and Sarkari place (although a couple of guidebooks classify it as 'recommended').

The heavens open in a heavy shower as we leave Trivandrum but it soon clears up and past Takkalai, the creeping suburbs at last give way to some proper landscapes. This is a very fertile tract of country, lush with fresh paddy fields, banana plantations, stands of coconut palms - and the odd sprawling water-lily spangled lake - to the east rise rugged granite hills (the southern limits of the Western Ghats). These hills look very angular and chiseled (one of these is said to be a fragment of the medicinal mountain taken to Lanka by Hanuman) and the entire picture makes for a tropical (and somewhat scaled down) version of the 'Grand Tetons' in the US (which I have seen only in a few dramatic photos).

The scenic splendor generally persists for the rest of the journey apart from a mercifully short stretch of urban mess at Nagarcoil.

We briefly halt at Suchindram to look around the 'Sthanumalayan' temple. This largish Tamil style, stone-built temple is primarily dedicated to Siva but said to be blessed by the presence of the full Trinity - Brahma and Vishnu being the other two; indeed, Sthanu is said to mean Siva, Maal refers to Vishnu and Ayan is brahma (I can't make much sense out of the last two names).

Brahma is of course a minor player in this trinity but the temple does make an effort to give Vishnu and his associated deities importance comparable to Siva. There is a colossal (nearly 15 feet) and quite famous idol of Hanuman (a primarily Vaishnava deity). The monkey god stands, hands folded in prayer - but with wide-open eyes; his head is subtly tilted to one side and canines stick out fang-like from his mouth. The expression is one of veneration perhaps with a dash of 'adbhuta'.

Above one of the entrances to the inner sanctum is a badly damaged mural done in what seems to be Kerala style. I could not make out what mythical scene it illustrates. The rest of the artwork in the temple is less than awesome - on one of the pillars we did see a small carving of Bali and Sugreeva locked in mortal combat, a rarely illustrated Mythological episode.

Granite hills continue to spike the eastern sky almost until we are only 3-4 kilometers short of Kanya Kumari. Then, to the east, the land suddenly appears to give way to an expanse of blue - the Bay of Bengal (more precisely the Gulf of Mannar; we have not seen the Arabian sea after Kollam). A kilometer or so of shops and hotels and the road hits a dead end (the usual type of wayside stone matter-of-factly states "Kanya Kumari 0 Km"). Ahead is the Gandhi Mandapam (a memorial to Gandhiji), the Kanya Kumari temple stands a little to the left behind a cluster of shops and beyond the Mandapam is an open beach and then, the infinity of the Indian Ocean.

"The statistic that only 20 percent of Kerala's population is urban is misleading; the villages are urbanized and extend in a few parallel chains almost right thru the length of the state." - Encyclopedia Britannica, circa 1985.

"Which is the largest metropolis in India? Bombay? No Sir! It is Kerala, the fully urbanized state!" - a newspaper ad from early 1990's.



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