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Following in Lord Rama’s footsteps

S Muralidhar | Updated on December 10, 2020 Published on December 10, 2020

Kanadukathan Chettinad Palace is one of the pristine examples of Chettinad architecture and the lavish lifestyle of the local community during its heydays All photos: S MurAlidhar   -  All photos: S MurAlidhar

Long weekend coming up? Plan a road trip, it is still the safest way to travel. With the Kia Sonet, I take an ‘epic’ journey to the bridge across the ocean

The pandemic has hit the travel and hospitality industry the hardest. The auto industry, too, had to bear the brunt of the lockdown, leading to a significant erosion in sales during the summer months. But the semblance of a return to normalcy is evident in the healthier occupancy rates of major hotel chains, and similarly in the steady increase in retail numbers for the big players of the auto industry.

For petrol-heads and road-trip addicts like ‘yours truly’, a limp back to normalcy can only mean that it is time to discover new routes and new destinations. November, post-Diwali, to mid-December is usually the storm season in the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu. Heavy rains and flooding, followed by prayers, form the usual annual routine. In another year I may have hesitated to head out, but lockdown weariness had set in months ago and so I was ready to face any amount of headwinds. A road trip was long overdue.

The Met department had predicted a break, a sort of lull after the storm Nivar in late November; and I decided to use the window of opportunity to head to Danushkodi, the tongue of land that stretches out to sea from Rameshwaram. The trusty steed at hand I was going to make the 1,300-km journey in was the Kia Sonet. A sub-compact sports utility may seem inadequate for a family; but I managed to tuck all my luggage for the four-day trip into the Sonet’s 392-litre boot. One set of travel essentials, of course, stayed put inside the cabin — half a dozen face masks and a couple of big bottles of hand sanitiser. I felt safer remembering that the smart air purifier in the Sonet’s cabin would also help filter out viruses from the air.

With traffic being back with a vengeance on the roads, I decided it would be prudent to leave early in the morning — otherwise, in addition to city traffic delaying progress, there could also be long queues at toll plazas. I took National Highway 32 out of Chennai, followed by NH132 and NH38 upto Trichy. The plan was to travel via and do a stopover in Karaikudi, the legendary Chettinad area that was the home to the Chettiyars of Tamil Nadu. On the highway, the Sonet makes short work of the distance, cruising effortlessly, and the tractable 1.5-litre CRDi Diesel engine delivers much of the peak torque of 250 Nm even from a low 1,500 rpm. Overtakes on the highway are executed easily with just a quick jab on the throttle. I was driving the GT Line trim with the six-speed automatic gearbox. And while there are enough red accent trim elements on the outside to identify its special status, the cabin is where these are both good to look at and highlight even more premium features.

Birthplace of banking

Most of the 450 km or so of the trip was tolled highway with well-maintained smooth tarmac. There were small stretches of broken tarmac, where at speed the Sonet’s relatively smaller size could be felt, but there was no sense of unease or discomfort in the cabin. Cruise control is the one feature that the Sonet, like many other vehicles of today, offers and I really couldn’t use it over extended stretches of the highway due largely to a lack of discipline amongst fellow road-users.

Karaikudi is a heritage town that was once the home of the Chettiyars — the prosperous trading community that is said to have transformed this arid land into a rich and verdant district. The town is now located on either side of the Trichy-Rameshwaram highway, and still has a number of Chettinad palaces and sprawling homes that are nearly a century old. It was eye-opening to know that the region had a role during the freedom struggle and even hosted Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Subramania Bharati. It is also considered the birthplace of the Indian banking industry. Indian Overseas Bank was founded in 1937 in Karaikudi by M Ct M Chidambaram Chettiyar. Although it’s now decrepit, Karaikudi also had its own airport during its heydays.

Land’s End

Chettinad cuisine is world-famous, so a sumptuous meal in the traditional banana leaf-style thali was definitely on the cards. Refreshed, I head out towards my final destination. The road quality worsened due to a considerably long stretch of the NH536 undergoing widening and currently under various stages of being relaid. The 140-km stretch up to the entry into Rameshwaram town was a mix of kutcha, raw gravel roads or partly paved stretches. The intermittent rain didn’t help either. But, the Sonet’s drive modes helped tackle the terrain, and the fact that the vehicle’s footprint is quite compact despite its SUV positioning meant that I could squeeze it through some narrow lanes and discover a few shortcuts, much to the annoyance of Google Maps.

Rameshwaram is cut-off from the mainland and is located in Pamban island, a patch of land that is only about 40 km from the island of Mannar, a part of Sri Lanka. What connects Rameshwaram to the mainland by rail is the famous 2-km-long Pamban bridge; and there is an excellent road bridge (see picture) that connects over the sea. The town is largely dependent on fishing and tourism and the current pandemic-led drop in tourist arrivals is evident.

Rameshwaram in Sanskrit means “Lord of Rama”, referring to Shiva, the presiding deity of the famous Ramanathaswamy Temple. The 17th century temple is famous for its long corridor lined by 1,000 pillars.

Rameshwaram is full of religious sites, including many that are attributed to and associated with Lord Rama’s crossing of the sea to bring back Sita. After a quick visit to some of them, I head towards Danushkodi. It was a bright sunny afternoon and I was thankful for the cooled seats in the Sonet.

Danushkodi is now considered unfit for habitation, after the 1964 cyclone destroyed much of the fishing village there. It is now just a sliver of land that sticks out to sea, only about 30-40 feet wide in many sections. There are a few fishermen who brave out their odds even today. At land’s end, there is an uneasy calm when I reach early in the morning. The sea is quite rough here, with the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean crashing into each other.

I shot the breeze with some of the locals, who took me on a walkaround of a dilapidated Portuguese church in the village. It was timely in a manner of speaking, because much of the church’s structure crashed days later when Cyclone Burevi struck.

The road trip showed me that life is limping back to normal, though we are not fully out of the clutches of the coronavirus. It is possible to safely travel by road and the joys of discovery and family time can be experienced if the right precautions are taken. After 1,300 km, and many hours behind the wheel over three days, the Kia Sonet proved to be a trusty mule in a compact but very usable package.

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Published on December 10, 2020
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