About two years after my last trip to a South Indian village setup, I decided to do a quick weekend trip to my friend Hari’s ancestral village last weekend. I wanted a change from the city lifestyle, even if it was just for a couple of days. His father had constructed a temple and prayer hall using crowdsourced funds for the principal deity of the residents of the Agraharam where he grew up, which was a perfect excuse for me to travel. I went with no expectations, on a sudden plan with no tickets booked or itinerary planned.
Hari was already there from Friday and my plan was to join him on Sunday morning. I didn’t find a direct bus or train to the nearest big town – Tenkasi from Bangalore, so I packed my bags with existential clothes for a couple of days and took the last bus to Madurai on Saturday night, a comfortable semi-sleeper. A technical issue set us back by more than an hour at about 3am on the outskirts of Salem and as a result, we managed to reach Madurai a clear hour and a half behind schedule.
My plan started going slightly haywire from there, as my fastest mode of transport to the next destination: a passenger train to the village of Pavoorchathiram had already departed from Madurai junction. My alternate option was to travel to Tenkasi from Thirumangalam, a municipal town south of Madurai.
The bus to Tenkasi from Thirumangalam took a very long time. With my leg space issues becoming more and more prominent by the hour, it wasn’t an entirely comfortable journey. Including a 15 minute stop at Rajapalayam (famous for the dog breed of the same name) where I had a brilliant ginger chai and got some famous Srivilliputhur ghee palkova, the journey took four and a half hours, the government bus ambling along at a speed only slightly faster than a bullock cart.
Hari picked me up from Tenkasi bus stand as soon as I reached. The mercury was hitting a scorching 38 C as we drove through the countryside which was flanked by the picturesque Pothigai hills. It took 20 minutes to get to the Agraharam, made up of two streets in the village of Melapavoor.
We went right in time for lunch which was quite sensational. On the plantain leaf, we had rice, sambar, rasam, avial, kootu, poriyal, payasam, appalam, pachidi and vadai. We roamed around the village rest of the evening, checking out cows and hay stacks, and drinking copious amounts of paneer soda to counter the heat. I observed that the local students and youth were against drinking bottled drinks made by MNCs like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, so new cottage industry drinks had cropped up, with their own coloured versions of carbonated drinks. The anti-MNC movement in Tamil Nadu from 2015 was seeing results out here!
There was a vilakkupuja later in the evening, that began at 8pm. While the lead pujari performed the puja, people started singing bhajan songs in the background. I sang a couple of devotional songs for my part. At about 9:30, we excused ourselves to go have dinner outside. We’d heard of the famous Courtallam Border Rahmath Parotta shop, which had the best parotta-kuruma and complementary dishes in the South (and possibly rest of the country) and we wanted to check it out, being so close.
The parotta shop was bang on the erstwhile border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, close to Sengottai, the border town. It was setup much like a dhaba, to service the long distance truck drivers passing through. The taste was so good that the word spread like wildfire and it started getting a lot of fancier customers. My pick was the egg veechuparotta, and it was top class. Piping hot and huge, chewy and tasty, it was served on a plantain leaf accompanied by the legendary kuruma (saalna) which elevated it to another level.
The highlight of the meal was yet to come: the beeda. We exited the place and found a beeda shop right outside the restaurant. We asked him for special beeda and he started to work on it elaborately and dedicatedly. He added some rustic ingredients we’d never seen before. When we finally put the completed beeda into our mouths, we lost it. That was heaven, right there. (Watch the time lapse video clip below for a fast track glimpse of the preparation).
The next morning, we managed to rent a TATA Ace, a vehicle to my knowledge used as a load carrier or share auto until this point, as our commute for the day. It belonged to a mason Hari knew in the village, and the healthy relationship came in handy. With a max speed of 60 km/h and suspension and steering wheel like a mini truck, it was one hell of an experience. Driving it needed special skills and I am proud to have driven it successfully. I finally feel like a man now.
We went to Thenmalai, nestled amidst Pothigai hills in Kerala, the TATA Ace moaning and groaning. We passed through a reservoir built for the Kallada hydro project, which was massive and walked in and around the place quite a bit, soaking in the beauty with no pressure for time. As we drove, we stopped by newly constructed train tunnels across the hills and walked inside. Knowing there was only one train a day, we weren’t afraid that we’ll be taken by surprise and get run over by an oncoming train. It was really beautiful and also clean for a change since it wasn’t a high traffic route.
On the way back, we had pathaneer and nungu on a palm leaf from an old seller on a bicycle on the hilly highways. I swear to God, that was the sweetest thing I had all my life. In the sweltering heat, it was just what the doctor ordered. If we hadn’t run out of hard cash at that point, we would have just stayed there and emptied whatever he had with him.
The return journey wasn’t entirely uneventful. After making the owner of the TATA Ace drop us to the Tenkasi railway station, the ticket for my three hour train journey to Madurai didn’t get confirmed. So I had to sit on the floor of an overcrowded unreserved compartment for the first time in my life, crunched for space. For some reason, the journey felt fulfilling.
I checked out the original Murugan Idli Shop in Madurai while waiting for the next train to Bangalore, and apart from the Jigarthanda, it was as unimpressive as the Chennai branches.
These two day getaways are pretty refreshing, and adds considerable value to our lives.
I’ll now work earnestly on my trail of ‘29 states before I turn 29’, in which I’m somewhere around the half-line mark.