Paddle about Pichavaram

THERE ARE just two things to do in Pichavaram — drift along the waterways in a boat and take photographs. The forest officer on duty will say that you can't take pictures, but no one really seems to pay attention to him. Pichavaram is known for it's unique mangrove ecosystem, found in areas such as the Sunderbans in West Bengal and in Australia. The mangroves are trees rooted in a few feet of water and the whole area stretches to over 3,000 acres comprising more than 1,700 islets. A two-hour boat ride (Rs.125 per hour) through the forest is both soothing and exciting. The boat meanders through overhanging branches and dark channels. The waterways are fascinating — one can see egrets, spiders, terns and other creatures that would require a pocket encyclopaedia for identification. The boatman assures you that the mangroves are home to water snakes, water dogs, foxes, turtles, crustaceans, waterfowl and more — a naturalist's dream come true. Amateur photographers would also freak out on the overhanging trees, the birds and creatures and scenic beauty of the place. For the ordinary mortal though, after a couple of hours of floating along tranquilly, there is nothing much to do after finishing one roll of film, peering into all the channels at the delicately large spider webs, identifying the few birds you know and marvelling at the rest and looking around hopefully for snakes. The boatman also tells stories of fascinating boat chases and "cinema scenes" that have been shot along the waterways — the place shot to fame with MGR's "Idayakanni". Since then, Sharath Kumar has shot there for "Sooryan", Prabhu has been there and miscellaneous governors, bureaucrats and politicians.

If you're looking for a semi-Amazonian experience to liven up a weekend on a budget of Rs. 3,000, try Pichavaram. It takes about four-and-a-half hours to reach the outskirts of Chidambaram. A turn-off to the right leads to the 16-km. stretch that takes you to Pichavaram. At this point, the State Government decides to take revenge for the 240-odd km of smooth road — the track to Pichavaram is a lot of stones and potholes held together with bits of tar. If you love your little car very much, park it safely at the hotel in Chidambaram and take the bus, which runs every hour.

There's no place to stay at present, but there would hardly be reason to stay overnight at Pichavaram unless one wants to study the mangroves extensively or try to commune with nature. The TTDC guesthouse on one of the many islands is closed for renovation, when open rooms are available for Rs. 200 a night. At present one has to stay at Chidambaram and take the well-beaten road to Pichavaram — which actually has a rope strung across it for a toll-gate, with a boy collecting Rs. 15 for "road upkeep." The road by itself is interesting — the water laps against the road in places, boys dive off an ancient barrage, actor Senthil endorses fertilizer from the walls of a ramshackle post office and statues of politicians painted gold stand at every other corner.

Head back to Chidambaram, where the main attraction is the famous Nataraja Temple. Excursions from Chidamabaram will take you to more temples and archaeological sites.


(The first of our new weekly column on offbeat travel destinations in and around Tamil Nadu)

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