South India - 2012 September

By Kavan Ratnatunga

Lanka has had a rich history of trade with south India, Lots of south Indian coins circulated in Lanka over many centuries. The mints that produced these coins were just names in my website on Lankan coins. I decided to visit south India to see some of these places and a few of the important Museums and famous archaeological sites.

Flew into Chennai on Sunday Sept 2nd. Chennai Airport was as messy as I remember it 30 years ago. The hotel at which I had made a reservation by E-mail was clean. Requested and got a room in a higher floor, bit away from a Kovil festival, with drums which went on most of that night.

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram

Next morning left by rented car with driver to Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) which is 55 kms south of Chennai. An ancient Port which was the Capital of the Pallavas from 600 to 750 CE, It is a large complex of temples with beautiful rock cut art which one needs to walk around in a few separate locations. Without a car, I had seen far less the last time I visited. The Shore temple had been ravaged by erosion. The sculpture in protected caves were well preserved. It appeared that some of the art had been chiseled out from the rock and removed. The art is smiler to that seen in Isurumuniya and Ran Masu Uyana in Anuradhapura which dates to the same era.

Next travelled down to Puduchcheri (Pondicherry) which was a small French enclave, and now independently administered, within Tamil Nadu State. A very late Lunch and some shopping at a Craft exhibition and it was too late to continue. Got a room overlooking the nice beach front to stay overnight. The beach front was paved and closed to traffic from Sunset to Sunrise to allow it to be used for leisure and exercise.

Late that night I got the SMS with the Warning from GOSL about Travel in Tamil Nadu. I put away my Sri Lanka hat and Teeshirt. The Times of India Newspaper of that day had a front page story about the deportation of the Sri Lankan Football Team. In addition to the nightly news on Indian TV, the Internet kept us informed with detailed news of the incidents.

Danish Fort Tranqubar
Danish Fort at Tranqubar

Left early next day to Tharangambadi (Tranquebar). Visited the Danish Fort which was very interesting. The Museum was small, and the few coins on display a shame for a place with a rich numismatic history. A small maritime museum had also been built after the Tsunami

Next stop was Nagappattinam. We could not find a Museum. and the only attraction was the beach. When I asked about any place of historical interest to visit, I was told that the Church at Vailankanni was a mid-16th century Basilica and just 12 kms away. Totally unaware of the drama that was unfolding at that site, we drove and visited around 2 PM without any sign of trouble. The main shrine was now "Computerised Mass offering Center" as I read on one large bill board. There were metal Tokens for INRs10 sold at another counter. So I paid for one just to find out what they were. When I gave the printed receipt at the next counter, I was questioned as to what I wanted. Seeing a dumb look on my face, I was given a token with a female figure. I later found out that each ailment had a different token. If I had known I would have got one of each for my collection :-) .

As we were leaving, a SMS came with the news of the assault on the convoy buses with Lankan Pilgrims on the way back to Trichy Airport. We had luckily missed the incident at Vailankanni by few hours. Got some mobile calls from friends in Lanka who were worried about our safety. Along the 80 kms road to our next stop Thanjavur, we passed hundreds of Pilgrims of all ages on a Pada Yathra(walking). Each group had a small cart with religious statues they were taking to the Velanganni Festival.

Siva Nataraj Thanjavur
Siva Nataraj at Thanjavur

Checked in at the Tamil Nadu Tourism Hotel which was clean but poorly maintained. The very large Hindu Shrine built by RajaRaja Chola in the 11th century, was open till late evening. We got in just before sunset and saw the enchanting Temple as twilight faded. Decided to return at dawn to see the rest of it. The massive bronze Nata Raj was truly cosmic. The 17th century Painting along inside perimeter wall were interesting. Asked about the 10th century painting of RajaRaja Chola, and no one seemed to know. Later found out it was on the inner sanctum walls of the Temple which were not open of the public. Next saw the Palace and Museum, which had a tower from which you got an ariel view of the region.

Rock Fort Trichy
Rock Fort at Trichy

Left for Tiruchiraooalli (Trichy) as I had booked online on an A/C sleeper Bus to Bangalore the next night. Attempts to change the ticket for the same night was complicated. So decided to stay the night in Trichy as planned at a hotel, a walking distance from Bus Stand. In view of the troubles, decide to keep the car for an extra day.

Visited the Museum, which was not easy to find. Housed in a beautiful 17th century Audience hall, it had a small well presented collation of coins and currency which even included some from Sri Lanka. Next visited the Rock Fort, which is on a 3.8 Billion year old rock, which at 83m, is about half the height of Sigiriya. The Climb to the Hindu Shrines on top, was from within the temple built on the side of the rock. The panoramic view of Tiruchi, was worth climbing the 344 steps barefoot.

Next day with few kms to burn on the extra day of Car rental, I decided to visit the Grand Annicut built by Karikal Cholan in the 2nd Century CE to harness the water of the Cauvery with a bifurcation. Not being a popular tourist spot it was not easy to find. It was a pity that modern restorations left little of the ancient annicut visible. On the way back visited Srirangam Temple Towers. Built between the 14th and 17th century, it is the largest temple complex in India. Returning to Trichy I released the Car. That evening we visited a local Numismatist who had a great collection of Chola coins.

The night A/C Sleeper Bus was a new experience. Starting at 10 PM we reached Bangaluru (Bangalore) just after 5:30 AM. The TukTuk took us to a hotel which was not to far and was acceptable. Decided to take an afternoon city tour of Bangalore. The Science and Technology Museum, which was the last stop on the Bangalore tour and was good.

The next day Tour Bus ride to Mysore was OK, but I was glad we were going to have more time to see the Palace and Museum properly before leaving Mysore on Monday. The last stop was Brindavan Gardens, but the rain was a spoiler. Went across by Boat to the south side, but it was no fun to see it walking in the rain. We returned to Mysore for the night.

Sandula Lion Belur
Sandula Lion at Belur

Next day I rented a car to visit Halebidu and Balur the 12th century kingdom of the Hosyala. The 325 kms round trip from Mysore, to see these exquisite carved rock temples is a must. Sandula the lion which looks just like the lion at Yapahuwa is of iconographic interest.
Lighted Palace Mysore
Lighted Palace at Mysore

That night being Sunday we saw the Mysore Palace lit up. A glorious sight not to be missed.

Next day we visited the Mysore Palace and Museums. That night we took the night sleeper train from Mysore back to Chennai. We checked back in the same Hotel in Chennai. We visited the Chennai Government Museum. It reminded me of the Colombo Museum, before recent renovations. Same gloomy atmosphere. Only the Bronze gallery had been renovated and properly illuminated, and two other galleries were closed for renovation. The temporary coin and Medal gallery was a disappointment. That evening we visited a leading numismatist in Chennai and saw his fabulous collection of Chola coins which I hope he will display online someday.

Next day we visited the St George Fort Museum. That had a nice Numismatic collection. Very nicely displayed on a tilted panel, in a way one could look at detail on coin if you had a magnifying glass. A vertical panel behind showed an enlargement with details of coins and currency on display.

On the way to the Airport at midnight we drove past in few very large posters in Thamil, pasted on walls which included a large picture of Prabhakaran and the date 2012-09-13. We were glad we were leaving before whatever that days rally. It was a great 10 day visit to south India, despite the anxiety of all the travel warning of which we saw nothing.

A web page with travel experience from this trip can be read at

An edited version of this article South India in September By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared on page ? of the Plus Section in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2012 September 30th.