Pankaja Srinivasan on a journey when the drive turned out to be as divine as the destination
Othakalmandapam, Kinathukadavu, Tamaraikulam…The names of the villages you drive past have a charming ring to them as you say them out loud. They are mostly a hotchpotch of paddy fields, striped temples, noisy bus stands and cattle. But unbroken in the background is the promise of quiet, birdsong and streams. Behind them are the stormy Western Ghats. It is a beautiful drive from Coimbatore to Pollachi and from there to Ramanamdaliputhur, where a small ashram awaits us with a more than a 1,000-year-old Shivalingam.
Signs warn against overtaking and speeding. "What is life without expansion?" asks one sign, while another promises, "Look out for dangerous curves". An elaneer man dispenses with tender coconut water right under a sign that sternly warns, "Don't drink and driving". Mud paths wobble off the state highway into the sunset. One of them leads to Tamaraikulam (imagine living in a village called the Lotus Pond). Maybe it will look like Monet's lotus pond. Reluctantly we keep that for another day and proceed.
Though it is the “Ishwaran Koil” that is the destination, it is the drive there that is divine. Leaving Pollachi behind, we bowl along at a steady 90 km/hr on the Meenkarai Road that ultimately leads to Thrissur. Ambrampalayam rushes past in a green haze. Ambrampalayam is also home to an old and sacred mosque. There is a belief that praying in the mosque can bring succour to the mentally challenged.
A bridge over the swollen Aliyar River and a left turn later, it's rural India like you see in the movies! Paddy fields ripple, palm trees sway, and stray dogs soak up the sun. Two young men in dark glasses pose self-consciously against their bike and photograph themselves with their mobiles. As you leave Ambrampalayam behind, drive towards Anaimalai village. Turn left there and cross the river once again. The ride gets bumpy from this point, but the scenery gets prettier. White egrets swoop past, a lone farmer snoozes beneath a tree, cattle stand around and some giggling women with flowers in their hair sway past. Past the village school, a small temple and the village square at Ramanamudaliputhur (it could be Malgudi!), it's paddy once again. Cross two more canals and you are almost there. There are no more road signs or buildings after this, but the goatherds and cowherds will point out the way to the temple. It is actually a little ashram, surrounded by an endless carpet of green rice fields. Manikandeswarar is the resident deity. While the temple is not ancient, the Shivalingam is more than 1000 years old, says the head of the ashram, Shivanesan Adigalar. The original temple was either destroyed by Tipu Sultan's soldiers or just fell into disuse.
The ashram is built around a truly splendid Rajavaagai tree. Hibiscus flowers add a dash of colour to the fencing. No crowds, no loudspeakers, no pushing and shoving, no begging, only serenity. The ashram inmates leave you alone after enquiring whether they can serve you tea or coffee. They have a few acres behind the temple where they grow what they need for their sustenance, they have some cows, and that is all. A light drizzle warns us that it is time to up and leave. The muddy paths could get un-motorable. We head home, past paddy fields, swaying palms, canals, cattle, village folk and the elaneer man. A nungu (palmyra fruit) vendor has joined him. Waiting at the railway crossing for the Mumbai-Kanyakumari Express to pass by, we buy big green guavas from a toothless old lady. A friend had mentioned that Priyanka Chopra was shooting in these parts. One can easily see her running through the paddy fields, her dupatta snapping behind her, and her hero giving chase.
From Coimbatore to Pollachi it is 45 km. At Pollachi, take the Meenakarai Road that ultimately leads to Thrissur, Kerala. After approximately 9 kms cross Ambrampalayam and the Aliyar River and turn left. Head towards Anamalai village that is about 5 km away. At Anamalai, turn left, cross the Aliyar River once again, and drive for 3 km till you reach Ramanamudalipudur village. The temple is 3.5 km from Ramanamudaliputhur. A SUV would be a better choice for a vehicle especially to tackle the last stretch of the drive towards the ashram.