Beaches and blessings

KAVITHA SRINIVASA | Updated on November 03, 2012

The Karaikal Ammaiyar temple pond at Karaikal. - B. Velankanni Raj   -  THE HINDU

Houses with distinctive architectural styles in Karaikal. KAVITHA SRINIVASA

Houses with distinctive architectural styles in Karaikal. KAVITHA SRINIVASA

A seventh century Shani temple, a sweet shop sought after for its halwas, and a beach that makes for a picnic spot — these are only some of the reasons to visit Karaikal on the Coromandel coast.

About five kilometres west of the temple town of Karaikal, which is located 140 km from Puducherry, is Thirunallar, home to what is regarded as the country’s most popular Shani or Saturn temple. And contrary to what is commonly believed, Thirunallar is in Puducherry, not Tamil Nadu. Although officially called the Sri Dharbarabeswara Swamy Devasthanam after the main shrine which is dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple comprising many small shrines is, for staunch devotees, simply the Saneeswar Bhagavan temple.

According to Hindu belief, Shani, known as Saturn, is one of the nine celestial planets or Navagrahas. Shani is widely believed to wield great influence and so, in order to lessen its impact, people usually perform various pujas. Yet in this temple, Lord Shani is perceived as blessing the devotees.

That’s because the deity here is shown in the abhayahastham posture, his hand held out for blessing. This is what motivates millions of pilgrims to flock to Thirunallar, no matter what the season. Defying summer heat and monsoon showers, they check into modest lodgings, take a dip in the Kalyani water tank and head to the temple to light the lamps of devotion.

The religious circuit also has a visual appeal. The Masimagam festival is celebrated on the seashore during the full moon in the Tamil month Masi. Another crowd puller is the annual Mangani or mango festival of the Karaikal Ammayar temple held in July. Indeed, Karaikal has something like 99 temples!

But it’s not known simply as an ancient temple town. The dargah of Masthan Syed Dawood dedicated to Saint Dawood, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed, is very famous, and many pilgrims come to attend the Kandoori festival held in his honour. Another towering landmark is Our Lady of Angels Church, rebuilt in 1828.

The secular character of Karaikal draws people of all faiths to the town and has given it a place on the tourist map of India. The beach is a major added attraction. It offers a beautiful view of the sunrise, and the meeting of the Arasalar river waters with the Bay of Bengal is a sight of timeless beauty.

This sandy, natural beach has been developed as a tourist spot, complete with water sports like boating, canoeing and kayaking. Boating is a favourite water sport here and the boats come from Nagapattinam, 16 km away, and are given finishing touches in Karaikal. The appetite worked up after a boat ride leads tourists to enjoy a meal at Sea Gulls, an airy beach restaurant known for its seafood delicacies.

The culinary experience extends to Karaikal halwa, a local delicacy, which is a must-try for every visitor. Reputed stores like Nagore Alwa Kadai specialise in cotton-seed halwa, apart from the almond variant. There’s also one with grated beetroot and cream of wheat, similar to carrot halwa. The intricacies of flavours can satiate any taste bud. And then there are the succulent gulab jamuns!

There are many hotels, some of them close to the bus stand, such as Atlantic Inn. They usually offer vegetarian, non-vegetarian and continental cuisine. For a more exotic stay, there’s the French Residency with a French feel.

The best way to discover a place is to walk around, and wander into lanes and bylanes. This offers opportunities to get a close look at the town’s landscape too, and take notice of some old Tamil homes, characterised by tiled roofs and verandahs with raised platforms. Walk down leafy lanes lined by neem and mango trees and take a walk around Nehru market teeming with fruit and flower sellers, and grocery stores. An arched gateway leading to the market dates back to 1852.

People here speak French, apart from Tamil and English, because Karaikal is part of the Union Territory of Puducherry. The French influence extends to a cemetery on Rue de Marche or Market Street. It houses a tiny chapel where many nineteenth century Karaikal administrators and landlords lie buried.

Shopping is fun but there are shops in every nook and cranny claiming to sell ‘foreign goods’. A wary shopper can successfully drive a hard bargain in these shops. But mid-morning walkabouts are best avoided because it can get very hot during summer.

For those travelling alone, it is advisable to take public transport.

Karaikal Snapshots

Karaikal calling

Best season: August-April

Food: Vegetarian, non-vegetarian and continental

Attractions: Beach, religious shrines

Shopping: Foreign goods sold in nooks and crannies

How to reach: By road from Chennai and Bangalore

Nearest airport: Puducherry

Languages spoken: Tamil, French and English

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Published on November 01, 2012
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