Perhaps the best way to start a journey is without any expectations. That way, even if you find nothing at the end, you can say, “It was just what I expected. ” I had done this bit of intellectual skulduggery by way of travel insurance before heaving myself onto the Narsapur Express in Secunderabad station. We were off to Konaseema, which as far as I knew was some no-name place in coastal Andhra Pradesh whence certain rumours had emanated.
The geography books tell us that the Eastern Ghats are nowhere near as precipitous or continuous as their western counterparts. In some places they disappear completely, giving way to other forces of nature. The widest such gap occurs where two great rivers of peninsular India punched their way through to the Bay of Bengal aeons ago. Thanks partly to the pugilistic efforts of the Krishna and the Godavari, Andhra Pradesh became the granary of South India.
The train pulled into Vijayawada at an ungodly hour. Being the junction where main lines from Chennai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad meet makes it one of the busiest stations in the country. At three in the morning, however, it had that deserted-yet-keyed-up-for-action feel that large railway stations around the world have at 3am. I got up and looked for a cup of tea, because that is the default behaviour programmed into the Indian railway traveller. The lights of the Kanakadurga temple perched atop a hill overlooking the station winked down at me like a grounded constellation.
Vijayawada is urbs prima in these parts and a candidate for state capital if the machinations of Andhra-Telangana politics take the road to partition. It is a bustling city of industry, shops, politics and heat (sometimes an egg-frying 500C+). Around here are enough destinations to keep the traveller busy for a couple of days — Undavalli for its caves, Mangalagiri for its eponymous saris, Kondapalli for its fort ruins and the artisanship of its toymakers, Bhavani Island for peace and quiet, and Manginapudi beach for sea, sand and seafood.
There was a hint of rain in the air. Almost every year during the monsoon, there is a potential catastrophe lurking around the corner. No one knows this more than the people of Machilipatnam. It’s an unprepossessing place nowadays, famous mostly for being the birthplace of the Bandar laddu, but has a past stretching into the 3rd century BC. It used to be a flourishing port vital to international trade, so important in fact that the anonymous Roman author of that remarkably concise ancient document the Periplus Maris Erythraei thought it fit to name Machilipatnam in one of its 66 succinct paragraphs. In later days, was hotly contested by the French, Dutch and British colonisers of the Coromandel. This saga came to an end in the winter of 1864 when one of those annual Bay of Bengal offerings, a tropical cyclone, came storming. The resulting tidal surge is said to have killed 30,000 and put paid to Machilipatnam’s lucrative position as a hot trading destination. Today, the town struggles fitfully to recapture the lost glory, as there is talk of reconstructing the port.
A luminous morning found us hopping off the train at Palakollu. Pleasant negotiations followed and we were happily ensconced in an auto headed for the river-side village of Dindi, which has a new resort by APTDC and from where we were to set off on a river cruise. The sunlight reflected golds and silvers off the crops and the water in the ditches, ponds and canals. In the Krishna-Godavari doab, the feeling that you are not far from fresh water never leaves you entirely. Rank after swaying rank of paddy, sugarcane and other green things remind you that the rivers are only a short drive away and shout out fertility and a natural, wholesome richness.
The auto dropped us off and we found ourselves on the bank of the stately Godavari. Three dormant houseboats bobbed at the quay. To eardrums used to the thrums and honks of metro living, the quiet was startling, broken only by the occasional vehicle crossing the wonderfully named Chinchinada Bridge that loomed over the resort. But the peace kept coming back the way it returns to a pond in which a stone is thrown.
If the Krishna reminds you of an MBA type person — purposeful, hurried, fast-talking — the Godavari is almost maternal — broad, placid, forgiving, generous and a balm. It jars to spell it G-o-d-a-v-a-r-i and to say it the way it is spelt. The right word is Godaari and what a world of difference a syllable makes! Godaari conjures up visions of lonely, perfect riverside temples with steps; tiny open boats with sails aflutter; a million songs spanning the gamut of age and style from the krithis of Bhadrachalam Ramadas to the infectious numbers from the 2006 movie named after the river; dozing in the shade of a chinta chettu (tamarind) with the susurrus of the afternoon breeze in the leaves being the lullaby; the plop of kingfishers and the sound of a forlorn locomotive whistle as it hauls a train across the spectacular bridge at Rajahmundry.
The friendly APTDC folks at Dindi helped us into the boat that was our home for the next 24 hours. The houseboat managed to strike a careful balance in that it had all the comforts of modern living (flush toilets, electricity, air conditioning) and yet managed to allow the river to make its presence felt. As we watched the river go by and sipped our poisons of choice on the open upper deck, the crew took us downstream at a holiday pace. Life was perfect.
The Godavari is not always the paragon of placidity it now appeared to be. Occasionally when the monsoon comes, the river swells and tries to muscle its way over the banks, bringing death and destruction. But a couple of centuries ago, the devastation was an annual feature of metronomic regularity. In 1845, a young Superintending Engineer in the Public Works Department named Arthur Cotton submitted a detailed report to the East India Company urging the taking up of a project that would ease the suffering and transform one of the poorest districts in the Madras Presidency into an agricultural paradise. The results were the barrage or anicut across the river at Dowleswaram and a system of canals for navigation and irrigation. In one fell swoop, Cotton had transformed the area; many of today’s Andhra agriculturists have a British civil engineer to thank for their prosperity.
The houseboat made its way gingerly downstream under the skillful guidance of our ‘captain’. As he kept one eye on the water for shoals, half-submerged fishing nets and the occasional naavu (sailboat), and another on his rookie first mate who was rattling mysterious pots and pans amidships, he told us stories about life on the river and growing up in Konaseema. The sun was beating down from high now, and we were in busier waters. The town of Narsapur hove into sight on the starboard bow and the ferry from Narsapur to the village on the other bank was doing brisk business. The boat was duly tethered to the pier and the first mate was despatched to fetch lunch. Pretty soon, we were back in midstream, eating fish, prawns, dal and rice Andhra-style and our exclamations drowned out the throbbing of the diesel.
While we were eating, the first mate told us about the region’s culinary pièce de résistance. In August/September, as the Godavari brings fresh water to the sea, the pulasa make their way upstream to lay eggs. The fish becomes fleshy, fat, and irresistibly delicious and the market price shoots up by as much as an order of magnitude over the deep-sea version. So much so that a proverb in these parts wholeheartedly recommends the pawning of a mangala sutram to pay for the pulasa. The delicacy is not easy to come by, and even in season, it is too expensive to be found in local eateries. The fish story sounded familiar: a little post-travel ‘research’ revealed it was because the pulasa of Konaseema is none other than the ilish/hilsa that Bengal swears by.
In a movie-mad state that sees an average of five films released every weekend, the districts of Krishna, West Godavari and East Godavari enjoy a special pride of place. While folks in the multiplexes may praise or pan the latest flick, it is here in the sanctum sanctorum that the film’s destiny is made and unmade. And if this is Tollywood’s Holy Land, Narsapur is its Bethlehem. For it was here that many years ago was born Konidela Siva Sankara Vara Prasad, the reigning deity of the Telugu film pantheon, also known variously as the Megastar and Chiranjeevi.
In the evening, the boat was moored back at the APTDC resort. For a short while, the water shimmered like molten metal as the sun called it a day and the stars trembled into life. After yet another stupendous meal, I lay on the upper deck in the breeze, and listened to the world shut down. When I turned in that night, it was secure in the knowledge that it didn’t matter what the morrow would bring. I had lived in the moment, almost Buddhist in my non-attachment to the trip, and it had more than paid off.
That evening, on the overnighter to Hyderabad, we didn’t have too much to say; everyone seemed absorbed in internal worlds of their own, but we were all probably thinking similar things. Perhaps about how we were going back to the rough and tumble of life, about what we’d each lost and found over the last couple of days. And maybe about how the future races towards us on steroids, but how in a bunch of far-flung little towns, villages and beaches in the beating heart of Andhra, life stops running inside the hamster wheel, takes deep breaths and smells the flowers.
Konaseema, in the Godavari Delta, lies in a triangular region between the Gautami and Vasishta Godavari rivers.
BY AIR There are regular flights from Hyderabad to Rajahmundry (Rs 8,500 return, all inclusive). A taxi from here to Dindi will cost Rs 1,500. BY RAIL The Narsapur Express runs daily between Hyderabad and Narsapur, the closest railhead. The easiest route to Dindi would be to get off at Palakollu (just one station short of Narsapur) and take a local auto to the APTDC resort.
Where to stay
APTDC has a new resort at Dindi (www.konaseematourism.com/stay.php), right next to the jetty that the boat cruise leaves from.
What to see & do
The best way to experience the river is to take the Andhra Pradesh Tourism houseboat cruise. This is quite the right way to laze, watching fish dart in the water, seeing fishermen out in their charming sailboats, and watching out for the fascinating birdlife of the Konaseema.
The temple town of Antarvedi (20km from Dindi) is on the coast, where the Godavari joins the Bay of Bengal. The Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple is a contemplative place. It is so designed that on the day of the Ratha Saptami (in January/February), the rays of the setting sun fall directly on the feet of the deity. The Antarvedi lighthouse (entry: Rs 10, cameras: Rs 25; timings: 5-6pm) is located on a deserted, windswept beach and stands in a complex of its own. Climb up the seven floors for bird’s-eye views of patchwork fields and fishing vessels.