Rocks and plains

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On Wednesday I drove north to join Eunice in Chennai, a distance of some 420km which we can now do in comfort on the new highway. Mind you, once you reach the Ford factory nearly 50km out of Chennai you start to get bogged down in traffic and then it is a crawl into the city – Chennai is rapidly spreading down the highways and the city’s sphere of influence stretches a long way from the centre.

But the drive from Dindigul to Trichy, thence to Ulundurpet where the road from Coimbatore and Kerala comes in, to the Pondicherry junction at Viluppuram, is full of interest. The first 100 km from Dindigul thread through some small green hills, part of the Eastern Ghats, and acres of excellent farmland, before crossing a dry plain to enter Trichy. The Cauvery river flows past Trichy – well, the river channel passes by, but it is a rare year when there is actually water in it. Water which reaches the sea is considered to be wasted so numerous canals and irrigation channels leave the Cauvery all along its length.

Trichy is famous for its rock fort (which is now a temple complex) and the great temple at Srirangam which occupies an island in the middle of the river. The fort sits on one of a number of rocks which push up between the city buildings. One of them, Ponmalai, or Golden Rock, gives its name to the Golden Rock workshop for Southern Railways which moved here in 1928 and which recently completed a new locomotive for the rack-and-pinion section of the Nilgiris Mountain Railway.

Crossing the river and heading on north-east the countryside becomes much drier. Close to the road it is just thorn bushes but to the west rise steep hills (or small mountains) which have developed into some fantastic shapes. Some are crowned with places of worship – Hindus, Moslems and Christians all seem to like heights – while others are being quarried for building stone. Now and again large dry rivers are crossed, and in places huge reservoirs are now emptying fast (this is a drought year in Tamil Nadu).

We’ve done this trip for the last 12 years, and each time have remarked on a little fort on a little rock by the road which seems unloved. This time we stopped to have a closer look and were in for a surprise. At ground level, a large stone wall circles the rock and quite a large area of land. A moat, now dry, protected the walls. A stone staircase mounts the rock through a number of inner walls, with temples and shrines, carved rock reliefs, to a lookout about 150 feet above the plain but with an uninterrupted 360 degree view.

An elderly man sitting in the shade of a tree told us it was the Nawabkottai – the Nawab’s fort. Our historian friend in Chennai whom we met last night said that if the word Nawab was used then it was probably a fort of the Nawab of the Carnatic, who was based in Trichy. The village is called Ranjankudi. I looked for information this morning and discovered that the fort was indeed built for a minor lord of the Nawab some time in the 17th century. It was the site of a battle between the English and French in 1751.

It is one of many such monuments to past struggles which are scattered about the plains.

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