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Diary of a Mumbai girl who cycled 720 km on heritage trail in Tamil Nadu

Cycling is my passion. I have been cycling for more than half my life, but my trips have been mostly short ones – to the market, to a friend’s home, leisure rides with my cycling friends or to work in Dadar from my home in Juhu.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Pics courtesy/ Firoza S

The maximum I’ve ever done in one stretch is 100 km. So I was a bit apprehensive when a friend of mine Suresh Kumar from Chennai invited me to join his group on a cycling heritage tour across Tamil Nadu.

Firoza S
Firoza S

In seven days we were scheduled to cover almost 850 km from Chennai to Mahabalipuram via Kanchipuram and Pondicherry. I decided to give it a try and am glad I did. From December 23 to December 29, 2012, I rode across a state without knowing the local language, learnt a lot about its people and their customs, experienced amazingly scenic beauty and made a bunch of lifelong friends. It is definitely a journey I will never forget.

A sari is woven in Kanchipuram
A sari is woven in Kanchipuram

Day 0: Pretour briefing in Chennai
I was excited to experience my first ever bicycle tour. There were 40 participants, and only two of us were not from Chennai - me and a doctor from Baroda. I was one of only three women participating. The organisers took us through the route, the rules and regulations, accommodation details and other aspects of the tour. Support vehicles carrying emergency medical supplies and spare cycles would follow us on the entire route.

Day 1: Chennai to Kanchipuram: 106 km
I started at a slow pace through the city roads and Chennai’s IT highway called Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), while I chatted with my fellow cyclists. We passed through several paddy fields, thatched huts along the route and so many beautiful temples that I lost count. There was a pitstop every 40 to 50 km so we can gather our energies and replenish our salt and food intake. Banana and lemon juice are a must. Finally we reached the town of Kanchipuram known for its hand woven silk saris. I was fortunate enough to visit a family of weavers and witness the weaving process, but I was saddened when the father said he will not let his son continue in the business as it is not financially viable.

Day 2: Kanchipuram to Thiruvannamalai: 145 km
The day started with a huge breakfast to sustain us till the first pit stop. It was a tough day. At one point we lost our way as the locals gave us wrong directions. By the time I finished 120 km, fatigue had set in. It was the longest bicycle ride of my life so far. I couldn’t wait to reach the hotel. Even after we passed the 140 km mark, we were nowhere near our hotel. On such tours, we have to be flexible about the distance. Several men gave up and rode in one of the support vehicles instead but I was determined I would finish. The good part was the lunch which we had at a local restaurant where we were served on banana leaves instead of plates. We visited the Gingee Fort, one of the few surviving forts from the Vijaynagar and Maratha empires in Tamil Nadu. It was truly impressive.

Day 3: Thiruvannamalai to Chidambaram: 140 km
Today, I narrowly escaped hitting a biker. That’s one of the problems of cycling not only in Tamil Nadu but in other states too. The people we met throughout our trip were very humble. The locals don’t have any ego at all. There was a lot of difference in culture, of course, but it was enlightening to see how rooted the locals are to their tradition. The route was very scenic and we rode along the bank of the river Pennaiyar.

Day 4: Chidambaram to Thanjavur: 140 km
We visited the Siva temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. I really liked the architecture and the huge Nandi at the entrance. Having ridden almost 400 km in this tour, I was now very confident about my own cycling abilities. Then we had to go downhill and I suddenly became disoriented. I went too fast and applied the brake suddenly so my cycle did a wheelie, and I fell down, hitting my chin on the road. We did some field dressing and then called 108, the state-run ambulance service. It arrived quickly, was relatively clean and well-staffed with a doctor onboard. It was a pleasant surprise to see a government service function efficiently. We had another 40 kms to reach Thanjavur but I didn’t give up. I rode all the way and then went straight to a local hospital with a fellow cyclist who was also a doctor as the wound required stitches.

Day 5: Rest day at Thanjavur: 0 km
Unlike other days when we had to be up and about at 6 am, today we enjoyed sleeping in. Later we did some sightseeing. We visited the Saraswati Mahal Library, which has some of the oldest books in the country. There is a map of London dating back to the early 1800s. It is done in pencil but is as detailed as today’s Google maps. We also visited the Brihadeeswara Temple dedicated to Lord Siva. It was built by the great Chola King Raja Raja 1 more than 1000 years ago. It is an outstanding example of Chola architecture. Recognising its unique architectural excellence, UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. We went to bed early as we had a long ride the next day. By now, riding 100 km everyday was a piece of cake.

Day 6: Thanjavur to Auroville: 190 km
We started our trips early in the morning, even at 6 am, and we would still see houses already decorated with fresh kolam (rangoli made with only rice flour). The local men were very courteous towards the women and I never encountered any sort of sexual harassment. The ride was exhausting. It drizzled throughout. There was headwind and it was a challenge to face it. By the time we reached Pondicherry, I was really happy - we didn’t have the wind problem anymore, I was finally at a place I’ve always wanted to visit and this was the first time I had ridden 185 km at a stretch.

Day 7: Auroville to Mahabalipuram
As it continued drizzling and I was suffering from a cold, I decided not to ride. Instead I went sightseeing in Auroville. Four of my fellow cyclists and I toured Auroville while the rest of the group cycled to Mahabalipuram. We visited the Auroville ashram, book store, school, met a local cyclist who had a collection of owls, and marvelled at how everything there is recycled. Nothing is allowed to go to waste. That evening, we hired a car to take us to Mahabalipuram so we could join the rest of the group. All of us then drove to Chennai and then went our separate ways.

Back in Mumbai, whenever I cycle, it is with the hope that I can convert motorists to cycling. When I cycle in the city, people do stare at me, but I want them to. I want them to think that if this girl can cycle, so can I. When they stop me and ask me about cycling, I am more than happy to talk to them. I’ve found that Mumbaikars’ interest in cycling rose dramatically after the first Being Human cyclothon four years ago. And now with gas prices rising, people have begun to cycle short distances.

Parking is a huge problem, that’s why I invested in a folding cycle. I can take it indoors with me to meetings at work or with friends. After all, I am saving so much money on fuel. I love to cycle because it saves fuel, is a green mode of transport and increases my fitness level. The Tamil Nadu trip was the first time I had travelled such a long distance on a cycle. It taught me that I can push myself to new levels of endurance that I didn’t know I had. Now I want to try even longer trips.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are.’  

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