COASTLINE As ANUSHA PARTHASARATHY drives along the Bay of Bengal, she discovers a spiritual seaside
Travelling down the Tamil Nadu coastline is not just about the wind in your hair, the surf on your face, and your head in the clouds. We discover a treasure trove of seaside temples and churches.
We start at Pondicherry, where the promenade is bustling with hotels and sun-drenched passersby. About 14 km from the town, we cross several makeshift roads to stop at a vacant stretch of land. A sand-coloured pyramid-like structure rises in the middle of the village of Pudukuppam. The Nataraja temple, built by Karan Singh, the chairman of the Auroville Foundation, is not new. Built after the original was washed away by the 2004 tsunami, it’s quite unlike any ordinary temple. Facing the magnetic North, the pyramid has an idol of Nataraja in the middle and the prayers reverberate up through the tapering interiors. Meditation mats are stacked on the sides.
Following the Cuddalore road, we stop next at Tranquebar or Tharangampadi (a Danish colony from 1620 to 1845). Walking through the entrance arch down King’s Road, we pass a Danish church, a cemetery and Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg’s tomb before heading to the beach with Fort Dansborg on our right. We look left and right there, perched dramatically on the edge of the waves, is the 13 century Masilamaninathar temple, dating back to the Pandya period. While the domes are still amazingly intact, many parts of the temple are in ruins, with arches and columns lying half-submerged in the sea.
Driving further south, we head for the salt mines of Tuticorin. A man-made pier stretches a good kilometre into the sea, and you can see a row of fishing boats docked by an islet with a church on it. We walk right to the tip of the pier and try to catch a closer glimpse of the spire. But it’s hazy and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get across. We console ourselves with fresh, chewy macaroons and coconut buns at the famous Gnanam bakery.
Fortified, our next stop is the sacred sands of Tiruchendur, famous for its Murugan temple by the shore. We are greeted by peacocks dancing next to the sanctum sanctorum and vivid paintings on the walls. But the sea itself is strewn with garlands and dried flowers.
A few kilometres from Tiruchendur, we turn off the main road into a narrow stretch that leads to Alanthalai. Here we find the Saints Peter and Paul church, standing a little away from the beckoning waves. The beach is silent and empty and the fishing boats stretch out in an endless line. The church, on the other hand, is alive with the cacophony of a few hundred sparrows that are everywhere -- at the gate, altar, doors, windows, prayer hall and, if you’re lucky, they’re even tame enough to perch on your shoulder for a second before flapping away.
Heading towards Kulasekarapatnam, we watch the horizon rise to the skies, the light blue of the sky merging with the darker inky blue of the ocean, and catch a glimpse of the towering spire of St. James’ Church in Manapad. We also drive by the Church of Holy Cross, which was built in 1581 and is said to have fragments of the True cross in Jerusalem. Flanked by the sea on one side and a lighthouse on the other, the church is about 18 km from Tiruchendur.
In Kulasekarapatnam, a small town that was once a port, is the 150-year-old Mutharamman temple, our next stop. The entire village seems to be there and it’s bustling with children in school uniforms, large families and couples. Navarathri is the main festival here, when more than a million devotees come here to celebrate.
The sun is about to set when we reach the Suyambulingaswamy Temple in Uvari. We sit on the large stone floor and watch the priests emptying the hundi. Inside is the lingam; outside, stone arches lead to the sea, now a surprising shade of rusty brown.
Heading out, just as the night begins to take over, we spot Uvari Church, shaped like a plane over a ship. The walls are painted with flags of different countries and loud prayers engulf us. The air is salty and cool, and the waves crash violently on the shore. Constructed in 1974 over an older one that had eroded over time, it is violently modern.
It’s noon the next day when we reach our southern-most stop. The sun is warm on our backs when we enter Kumari Amman temple, where the goddess Kanya Kumari wears a diamond nose ring that is said to sparkle so bright that it can be seen even from sea. And so, at the temple by the confluence of three seas ends our journey.