A day in the unknown neighbourhood

Saturday started too early for me. Chennai central railway station, I was running on the platform number 4 at around six in the morning to catch Sapthagiri express. Somehow managed to jump in which had just started and slowly moving. As all seats were occupied(it wasn’t a reserved ticket) in the coach, I stood near the door looking out enjoying the cool breeze. Thus started my first leg of the lengthy journey, little did I know that I’ll be travelling in a train, buses, truck, auto, moped, bicycle and by walk, same day in a span of 14 hours.

It all started when I thought of spending my weekend in a different weekend. During my stay at Chennai, my usual weekend used to be (if I’m not visiting my hometown) get up late + brunch (breakfast & lunch) + window shopping at Spencer’s + a movie at Satyam complex. With prior flop shows of waiting for co-travellers, I decided to travel alone. More than 90 percent of the time, people will say they will join for the trip and at twelfth hour they drop out. Being alone was an advantage, I had the authority to chose the place. With plans of visiting a less known place, I ruled out all major tourist destination. Finally I zeroed in on ‘Arahantagiri’, a Jain pilgrimage in Tamilnadu.

All I knew about the place was its name. A call home to get info on how to get there was not fruitful. With the hope of getting details from the other possible resource, I spent a good 2 hours searching in ‘Google’. At the end I had just two links staring at me, all they had were just the name of the place. Finally mom did her homework by contacting few relatives and I had the postal address of the place. Bulletin board at office helped me get further more details from other co-workers. I was to goto Polur, a small town near Thiruvannamalai and ask local people for directions to my destination. Thus started my journey to the unknown neighbourhood on May 1st, 2004. Apart from not knowing the place, I had another major problem. I didn’t know Tamil – ability to read/write = 0%, to speak = 5% and to understand = 10-15%.

On that Labour’s day, I reached Polur without much hassles. After getting down at Katpadi railway junction and changing two busses, I reached the small sleepy town. Now was the big confusion. I was asking for directions to Thirumalai, more common name to ‘Arahantagiri’, and people showing me the bus going towards Thiruvannamalai. I tried clarifying thew same to them – first in English, then Hindi, and broken Tamil, but all in vain. What the heck? If they don’t understand those languages, why not try Kannada? I thought. And luckily it worked. There was a guy who was able to understand me, and he gave me the directions. But, I had missed the direct bus to my destination while I was trying to establish the communication with them. For the next bus, wait time was 3 hours. The same guy came to my help again. He gave me an option – take a bus to Vadamathimangalam & catch an auto or any other vehicle bus going to Arahantagiri. Five minutes later, I was on the bus going to Vadamathimangalam.

Half an hour later, after another confusion-filled communication & a short drive in an auto, I reached my final destination. ‘Arahantagiri’, is a small sleepy village & a Jain pilgrimage. There is a 18ft statue of Bhagawan Neminath, the 22nd Tirthankar on top of a small hillock & a temple at the foot of the hill just next to the village. One can avail rooms to stay there in the Jain mutt which acts as care-takers of the temple architecture though it comes under archaeological department. The same Jain mutt also runs a boarding school free of cost for the local kids.

After a much-needed bath, I roamed around the place. Sat under a tree on the hill-top for half an hour, enjoying the view. The whole place won’t take more than 2 hours to see. A resident of the mutt suggested visiting nearby Jain temples and agreed to come with me as a guide. To my luck, Kumar, the guide was a Kannadiga staying there for the past 8–9 months & knew a little bit of Tamil. After a heavy lunch, I took off to Ponnur malai with Kumar leading the way.

A short ride on the bicycle back to Vadamathimangalam, a bus from there to Chetput and another bus to Ponnurmalai. It was 3PM, visiting the two Jain temples didn’t take much time. I climbed up the small hill, paid a visit to another shrine of Kundakundacharya, a Jain monk. By 3.45, I was back to the bus stop, thinking of how to reach my den in Chennai. Then came another Kumar, a resident of Vandavasi, who knew only Tamil. Kumar, the guide, came in handy this time. Enquiring him about my journey back, he suggested me to take a bus to Vandavasi & then another to reach Chennai. But next bus to ferry me to Vandavasi was at 5.30PM.

While I was thinking about ways to kill time, Kumar (second Kumar, let me call him TVS Kumar) flagged down a speeding truck which was heading towards Vandavasi. He asked us wait for him near the bus stand till he comes there by his TVS moped. Truck cabin was full with passengers & we had to climb to the trailer of the truck. The truck was going empty after unloading sand and was full of dust. Before we were able to settle down, soul of Michael Schumacher got into the truck driver’s body and we were speeding towards Vandavasi. We got down from the truck with dust covered all over our body, just before the city limits as it was taking a deviation. By the time we got cleaned ourselves, TVS Kumar came on his moped. Asked him for directions to the bus stand, thanked him for the help and started walking towards the stand. After two minutes, he came back and told about another old Jain temple very near to Vandavasi. Kumar the guide translated whatever TVS Kumar said. I came here by chance & don’t know when I will be here next time, I thought. Hence, decided to visit the place. TVS Kumar offered to takes there on his moped.

All three of us on that 50CC moped, started towards the place (forgot the name, sure it’s tongue twister) which was around 6-7 KMs from Vandavasi. The moped broke-down and we were still some 1-2 KMs to the place. Kumar the guide & myself decided to walk to the temple while TVS Kumar started fixing the moped. We reached the temple tired. Spent a good half an hour in that peaceful place. TVS Kumar came tottering on the moped. We sat there for another 30-40 minutes talking. TVS Kumar was talking continuously about the rotten politics & politicians of Tamil Nadu, with Kumar the guide as translator. TVS Kumar had a good sense of humour (I was able to understand a bit of his humourous comments) & was a fun-filled conversation.

It was time for me to leave. Reached Vandavasi on the moped riding triples. Exchanged our phone numbers, thanked both. Bid adieu to both the Kumars. And we parted – TVS Kumar to his home, Kumar the guide to Arahantagiri by bus & to me towards Chennai. Reached home by 1AM, tired after an adventurous journey.

PS: I lost all the photos of this trip when my hard-disk crashed. I know its long & boring, without photos.

PPS: TVS Kumar called me after a couple of months to invite for his marriage. He even took my postal address & sent the invitation. But, I couldn’t make it to his marriage 🙁


  1. Who says its boring ? Very interesting recount it is. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get those kind of friends. Isn’t it ?

    And yes, not only in Tamil Nadu, the language is a problem everywhere especially for us North Indians.

    Nice post !

  2. That was a very cool account! Wow, what an experience! Travelling alone is so much more fun sometimes 🙂

    And yes, I second Arun’s questions 😉

    Btw, I lived in Tamilnadu for 1.5 years, and the first thing I did was learn to write and read Tamil — after that I could go around the whole state with ease – just read the boards on the buses and travel! 🙂

  3. Beautiful recap, Prashanth. It was a virtual journey for me…enjoyed every bit. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. When we travel to unknown places and get in troubles there, God will help us, in the form of some mortals. In your case, TVS Kumar and another guide Kumar. And for me, it was Ramappa master living in an unheard remote corner of Karnataka. These experiences strengthen us to live life with contention.Bravo Prashanth. It was not boring at all and pictures are not necessary when words can explain it better, I guess.

  5. Thanks Cuckoo. Yes I was lucky to get those two Kumars that day 🙂

    Arun, though its been 3 years, the details of that venture is fresh. I can give you the details even when you wake me up from the deep sleep… 🙂

    Thanks Rcon.

    Shruthi, thanks. Thats what I did after that trip. I learnt reading & writing Tamil. Even now I can’t speak that langauge, but I can read it.

    Thanks Vani & Srik.

    Srik, thanks for the link of your lone venture. Will go through that when free.

  6. I never thought I would see the native village of my friend will appear on the blogs. Even though I have visited it long back when we were in our college days, never thought of posting it as a blog. In an interesting twist you (Kannadiga) are exploring Tamilnadu and me from Tamilnadu trying to explore Karnataka 🙂 Kudos India. We should be really proud of our diversity.

    Thanks for a nice post Prashanth.

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